Opening Statements: Discussions, Discomfort, Discernment
I am a Black man in America, so I am no stranger to difficult conversations–especially the ones about all of the -isms, phobias, and -ments (governments, apartments, disenfranchisement). As a Black school teacher whose classes are built on and around genuine community and honest conversations, I have learned many lessons, strategies, and values in regards to creating and maintaining safe spaces, an open and genuine sense of communication, and constructive exchanges despite political disagreements, social conditioning, and temperamental teenagers (and adults).
In this piece, I just want to speak to my younger teacher self as well as my new teachers entering the classroom for the first time. No amount of reading can replace experience in the classroom, so prepare to learn by doing, not just by reading and studying. In no particular order, the following comments and thoughts are just my own, nothing universal or standard. Use discretion and trust yourself. Let the kids teach you.
Here is what I ask and expect from anyone and everyone in my classes.
Humility: let’s humble ourselves to engage in listening to understand and listening to care rather than listening to respond or listening to dispute. Teachers, this means us too! We have to model humility with our bodies, our words, our line of questions, and our overall facilitation. Many times I have found my ego, bias, and extroversion to be the main barriers to constructive, productive conversations in class. Humility will force a person to check-in with themselves and to check themselves before they wreck themselves! Thanks, [Ice] Cube.
Curiosity: let’s be curious about other folks’ points of view and experiences, for that curiosity may soon turn into compassion if coupled with open ears, open minds, and open hearts. My kids know I care when I say, "I'm just here to listen."
Respect: from body language to the way we greet each other, we all have different cultural definitions, understandings, and applications of respect. We just need to acknowledge those differences and still create a shared understanding of what respect looks like, feels like, and works like when we are together as a class community. This co-creation of respect invites us to get to know one another.
Solidarity/Fellowship: how can we find points and places of and for solidarity or fellowship in the face of ongoing inequity, division, and violence? In other words, how can we become healers and helpers of ourselves and others? First, we must acknowledge who we are in the complex matrix of history, health, harm, and help and then acknowledge where and for whom the help and the harm are present. It was hard for me to understand how healing myself is a continual courageous act that requires me to step out of my social construction (i.e. societal norms, stereotypes, archetypes) and more so into my actual body and into alignment with my own values. Once I was able to step outside of myself (to examine myself), I was also in position to see others outside of their social construction and ultimately acknowledge their humanity and then see the opportunities and invitations for help.
Community: point blank, if you are not continually investing the time, care, and space into building a community, then the space for light or heavy conversations is not available and or safe.
Considerations & Acknowledgements: the art of facilitation
I like to name and admit the following for myself and my students:
Names: Sure, this goes without saying; however, you would be surprise the difference between pointing at a student and hearing someone call a student by their name. Saying and hearing names make people feel seen and heard, so invest in learning a person's proper pronunciation of their name and their desired pronouns. Also, I love when students can facilitate and call on their peers as volunteers. Also, names are key when giving shout-outs during the debrief. Yes, I love when students highlight and recognize each other for their contributions to the discussion.
Share the Space: Be mindful of the teachers and students who mean well but take up too much space in the conversation with their sharing, commenting, or body language. I would know because I can be that person who talks a bit too much. It is not about disengaging or silencing yourself but allowing space for you to listen and others to step up. Some people call it “stepping up and stepping back.”
Roles: Besides actual sharing or talking, I want to recognize and offer different ways for students to add to the conversation and the space. Some students take on the role of class scribe (note-taker), time-keeper, and or final thoughts commentator also known as the "closer" or "process checker." Experiment with the classroom roles because they engage different learning styles, personalities, and modalities.
Terms & Conditions: Sure, there will be students who are well-versed in justice and equity language, but make sure we are all continually expanding our vocabularies and defining empty or loaded terms like “society” and “oppression.” It is hard to communicate without a shared language or understanding of certain terms, especially major ones that may have been diluted or reduced to “buzzwords” by popular media. The same can be said for language surrounding socioemotional learning. Also, as an English teacher, I have had to learn and respect different linguistics and literacies, meaning do not “word” police students or speakers. To be honest, the concept of an “English” teacher can easily lend itself to straight-up ideological and cultural imperialism; personally, I want to be a coach who builds on students’ prior experiences and communication skills, not some language law enforcer. As a teacher and student, ya boy definitely has had to code-switch and use my AAVE to keep it real.
Black-or-White Thinking/Binary Thinking: All or nothing arguments as well as binary thinking create a dangerous rabbit hole or opportunity for conversational detours, potholes, or dead-ends. The substantive and probably more engaging conversations happen in the gray areas, in the liminal spaces, especially when talking about the distinctions, blindspots, and nuances–not just the polar opposites or extremes. Don’t allow the conversations to be hijacked, hacked, or backed into a corner by binary thinking or gross generalizations.
Double Standards: Double standards exist, whether we agree with them or not. Instead of arguing solely about the inherent inequity and inequality, let’s also unpack their origins, their presence, and the context in which they appear. Don’t let double standards be the thing that derails or stifles the conversation. And it is not about blind acceptance or rejection but acknowledgement and analysis of the double standard in our everyday self-beliefs, self-talk, and behaviors. Remember, context matters.
Narratives: I like to name and call out political and social narratives (instead of individual people) because we must differentiate between fact and fiction-- the narratives around those facts. All media has a certain slant that we must identify and name, especially since we do not control the media as in what is shown and what is omitted. We are all battling narratives; hopefully, we can be self-honest and call out the narratives that we need to unlearn in order to heal and help one another. Be careful of folks who repeat soundbites from social media without much personal research or reflection. There’s nothing wrong in providing and or asking for sources; we, as teachers, have to model not only the habit of researching beyond just one google search but also the habit of requesting and showing sources.
Conscious Debate Set-Up: Make sure to design the tools and the learning context in a way that invites constructive and fruitful exchanges instead of opportunities for rants, shouting bouts, emotional shutdowns, and “rage quitting” as my kids put it. For example, trying sitting in a circle instead of a “U.” Try having students do pair-shares with their “shoulder” neighbors or facing one another without desks in between them. These little changes in physical position and proximity can ease or preclude any potential tension.
Text-Centered: Specifically for discussions, I like to use readings or videos to open and sometimes ground conversations, so we have a reference point. Having a “central text” keeps us from personal attacks and more so focused on the analysis of a particular argument, narrative, or perspective, which may or may not be represented among participants in the discussion. It can be very scary or intimidating to speak publicly about yourself.
Labels & Name-Calling: Do not get lost in labeling, name-calling, and stereotyping. Calling people “Karen’s” or “social justice warriors” gets us nowhere but heated. Let’s not reproduce some of the unhealthy behaviors we see on news outlets and social media. The media is less focused on community-building and dialogue and more so the histrionics, the antics, and the clicks at the end of the day.
Temperature Checks: During these conversations, we have to do pre-, during, and post check-ins about our emotional state(s) during particularly tempestuous exchanges. Don’t discount or discard the changing emotions in the room. As teachers and students, we are tasked with constantly reading the room.
Woke-Policing: Every year I tell myself and the kids that we are not here to show how “woke” we are. We are not here to do a witch-hunt to find the bigot either. If anything, can we find places and points of entry for us to move toward mutual understanding, support, healing, and maybe liberation from unhealthy narratives, behaviors, systems, and institutions? And be sure to look out for any moral virtue-signaling, which tends to turn into shaming and patronizing non-verbal cues (tone, body language, eye-rolling).
Admitting Fault: Especially as a teacher, it is okay to admit fault, acknowledge harm, and apologize. It is okay to admit when we do not fully know or understand something. As the kids say, "take the L and keep it moving!" Admitting fault shows not only a willingness to learn and grow but also a respect and care for another.
Growth Mindset: I publicly state to students that it is fine and honorable to change their minds, expand their thinking, or respect a different point of view. We grow from active listening and perspective-taking.
Stressors & Deterrents: As you learn more about your class dynamics and individual personalities and temperaments, consider whom or what can potentially disrupt, endanger, or obstruct constructive conversation and vulnerable sharing. Nobody wants to share if they feel as though they will be judged, ridiculed, or dismissed. Also, use discretion in terms of how you integrate grading or incentives when evaluating student performance during a discussion. For students, grades can be a source of stress and a cause for silence.
Questions > Statements: I have learned to ask more questions and encourage inquiry over commentary. Formulating and asking relevant and precise questions invites perspective-taking and perspective-giving as well as demonstrates a person’s overall engagement and critical-thinking during the conversation. I love when students ask follow-up questions to one another in class instead of giving answers or making statements.
Diversity of Thought: Don’t let this concept turn into any and all viewpoints are valid and healthy! We know some views come from and lead to a place of harm, violence, sensationalism, and ego. Be proactive (rather than provocative) and ask students to journal or reflect on the origins, the development, and the counter-arguments of any and all viewpoints. There’s power in asking, how did you (we) come to this conclusion or understanding? This question gives people an opportunity to clarify, elaborate, or revise their statements. With my Seniors and more mature Sophomores, I will sometimes do a "graffiti board," an activity during which I ask students to all come to the board and write down all the comments, symbols, historical events, and public figures that they associate with a particular topic or theme. I call it "getting everything out on the table!"
Get Off the Stage: Teacher, sit your ass down and listen. Become a facilitator-participant and when ready, delegate the facilitator role to a student. Young people like to be treated and trusted like adults and so empower them by referring and deferring to them as facilitators. Offer students some basic skills of facilitation.
Body Check-In: Throughout the conversation, the week, and the year, ask students to name where they are in their bodies: a) in their head (thoughts); b) in their heart (feelings); c) in their gut (intuition or hunger). Yes, check your gut if you’ve got a certain inner knowing and or if you are hangry. These conversations can be taxing, causing people to need food, water, and or rest.
My Go-To Questions: When in doubt, I ask the following questions.
What came up for you?
What stood out to you? Why?
What are some big takeaways or “so what’s” from today’s conversation?
So what do you want to further reflect on after today’s conversation?
What ideas and thoughts can we build on for the next class?
Who do you want to shout-out?
Conclusion: call to action
No need to juggle or put all of these into consideration or practice immediately. Just use this list as a reference and or foundation to build on your own repertoire, your own tricks of the trade. Also, let me know what other lessons you have learned. And yes, these lessons come in handy outside of the classroom and in my personal life. At the end of the day, even if we are just sitting in silence, together, how do we make and hold safe space for ourselves and others?
Lastly, make time for fun and silly discussions about favorite movies, childhood experiences, and other topics that may be low-stakes, high engagement, and high reward in terms of students feeling a personal and communal sense of safety and belonging long-term. These feel-good conversations also provide both academic and socioemotional learning opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate their interpersonal skills. I strongly believe that good conversations happen when people feel the community is invested in learning about one another and the world around them.
I repeat, let the kids teach you.
P.S. Use the in-take form at the very bottom of this page to send some lessons you have borrowed from the classroom or your personal life to facilitate difficult conversations. Also, tag me on Instagram if you have something to share.