What is a critical conversation? It’s any discussion about the ways injustice affects our lives and our society. It’s a conversation exploring the relationships between identity and power, that traces the structures that privilege some at the expense of others, that helps students think through the actions they can take to create a more just, more equitable, world.
It’s important to remember that students want to talk about these issues. They recognize the injustice inherent in racism, gender bias, ableism, anti-immigrant sentiment, religious and anti-LGBTQ bias and more – and they see these prejudices at work in the world every day. Following are strategies and resources to help you facilitate these discussions conﬁdently and skillfully, regardless of the age of your students.
Critical conversations about identity and injustice often hit close to home, and they can provoke a range of responses from students. If strong emotions do arise, remain calm and assess the situation. Students may be uncomfortable, but discomfort alone isn’t reason to end the conversation. If the tension in the room prompts dialogue and encourages learning, be prepared to let the discussion play out. If the tension boils over into confrontations that jeopardize students’ emotional or physical safety, you’ll need to diffuse the situation. (See the complete guide for techniques to try and ways to navigate a polarized classroom.)
Opening the Conversation
Your students take their cues about how to approach the conversation from you. When you engage critical topics with confidence, respect and a genuine curiosity about your students’ ideas and experiences, you encourage them to speak thoughtfully and truthfully and to value one another’s contributions.
Begin the discussion with a collaboration; setting norms together helps students build ownership in the conversation. It may reassure students to know that the discussion will have a clear structure. It also demonstrates your respect for student identities by including them in the shaping of the discussion. And they will likely have ideas that you haven’t considered
There are any number of ways you can work with students to establish norms, from whole-group brainstorming and small-group collaboration to journaling and sharing. You could lead students through a sounds/looks/feels model. Ask students three questions:
1. What do we want our conversation to sound like?
Some norms will probably be obvious – no insults – but others should be more complex. Students may agree to limit their contributions until everyone’s been heard or ask that everyone begin by restating the idea they’re responding to.
Here are a few stems students can use to question or disagree with classmates:
“What did you mean when you mentioned … ?”
“I agree and would add … ”
“I agree when you say … but disagree when you say … ”
“I disagree when you say … because …”
2.What do we want our conversation to look like?
These suggestions will likely address respect. Students could suggest that desks be arranged in a circle, that listeners turn to the speaker and that phones, devices and computers be put away.
This is a good time to remind students once again of the difference between intent and impact. You can also address tokenism at this time, reminding them that no individual can speak for an entire group and that we shouldn’t expect them to.
3. What do we want our conversation to feel like?
It may be more difficult for students to generate responses to this question, but answers could include that students expect to feel respected and believed.
If you’ve laid the groundwork for productive critical conversations, your students should have confidence that their identities and experiences will be valued. Remember that feeling safe and valued are not the same as feeling comfortable. Address this directly: Your discussion may at times be uncomfortable, but discomfort is a necessary part of growth.
Students should know why a critical conversation is taking place and what you expect them to gain from it. Talking through goals with your students also eases the class into the discussion. If you generally begin with an essential or compelling question, try involving students in its development. This offers an easy way to connect a critical discussion to the lesson, event or news that sparked it.
Offer a Shared Starting Point
However a critical topic finds its way to your classroom, remember that connections that seem obvious to you may not be clear to students. Instead of requiring them to be ready to jump into a critical conversation, provide a prompt to connect the discussion to their lives and to the curriculum.
During the Conversation
Structure the Conversation
Planning a structure for your critical conversation will ensure all students have the opportunity to contribute. When choosing a structure, be sure to consider not only the personalities and culture in your classroom but also the topic with which you’ll be engaging.
Focus on understanding, not persuasion: Take the role of listener, mediator and prompter rather than evaluator, judge or interpreter. Neutral phrases like, “Please tell us more about that,” and questions like, “What experiences have led you to this conclusion?” can encourage students to explain further without feeling defensive.
Model listening and keep the discussion student-centered: Model active listening skills for students, using phrases like, “What I heard you say is …” Avoid lecturing students, even if you disagree with their claims. Instead, look for ways to make space for students to engage with one another.
Get comfortable with silence: Pauses give students a moment or two to reflect and consider what they want to say next. Try waiting for just 30 seconds: Generally, students will break the silence themselves.
Make space for impersonal contributions: Create opportunities for students to contribute comments that aren’t too personal. Ask questions that clarify or expand ideas and allow quieter students an opportunity to join in without volunteering anything too personal. You might try questions like, “Where do the assumptions or ideas about this topic come from?”
Plan Ways to Support and Check In With Students
For younger students, using thumbs up/thumbs down is an easy way to see how students are feeling. For older students, a restate/contemplate/breathe/communicate strategy works well. However, no matter how well you plan, there is a possibility you’ll need to address strong emotions. Remember, students will follow your lead. If you model calm, they can also use this moment to catch their breath and calm down.
Closing the Conversation
The deliberate approach you’ve brought to planning and facilitating your critical conversation should continue through the close of the discussion. Students need time to process and reflect on these conversations and time to let the emotions that may have arisen during the discussion recede. Here are a few strategies you can use to guide this process.
Wrap Up the Discussion
In addition to asking for anonymous feedback that can make your next discussion smoother, try one or more of these ideas.
Summarize what you’ve learned: Ask students directly: “What are some of the discoveries we’ve made today?” Encourage responses that speak both to the critical topic and to the discussion itself.
Revisit your goals: Ask students whether they think the discussion met the goals you set or answered the compelling question you established at the start of the conversation, and why.
Share appreciation: Invite students to thank one another for sharing and to also recognize how their classmates have helped them better understand the critical topic.
Identify shared experiences or values: Ask students to brainstorm experiences, identities or beliefs that connect them to any subjects of your discussion and to one another. Ask students to identify someone in the class with whom they have something in common they didn’t know about before today.
Review your community agreements: Ask students whether (and how) they think the community agreements you developed at the beginning of class helped the conversation proceed.
Plan for follow-up action: Brainstorm ways students can take action. Make a list of steps, big and small, students can take to engage with this topic.
Allow Time and Space to Debrief
Even if you end the conversation on a positive note, everyone involved will still need time and space to let go of emotions before they leave the classroom. Consider using talking circles, journaling, drawing or other methods for students to debrief.
Solicit Anonymous Feedback
Some students may feel uncomfortable contributing to a critical conversation. They may also be reluctant to critique classmates or to let you know what they wish you were doing differently. Asking for anonymous feedback can help ensure their concerns are heard, and you can use the feedback to guide the discussion, recalibrate the conversation or prepare for the next time you engage with a critical topic. Soliciting thoughtful feedback is perhaps the most effective way to ensure that your practice improves each time you facilitate a critical discussion with your students.