Skillfully Engaging with Challenging Topics and Each Other

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In 2017, Project Look Sharp surveyed teachers, “What do you struggle with the most around “hot-button topics” in the classroom?” 

The most frequent responses were closely related:

  1. Making sure that everyone’s voice is heard, while still ensuring that no one gets hurt.
  2. Lack of engagement by some, while others dominate the discussion.

We’re all familiar with the classroom where one or two students are consistently in “call-on-me” mode with their hands always up, while others are in “I’m not here” space with their heads down.

When we cover challenging topics in the curriculum, this can exacerbate classroom dynamics.

In my experience, creating a classroom culture that makes it clear that every voice is essential and valued—and that no voices will be privileged over others—leads to what I call “all-in” student participation.

One way I facilitate the development of classroom culture is to normalize sharing of personal experience. For example, sometimes I tell my students that one semester I was in a math class where I felt like the stupidest kid in the room. I sat in the back corner near the door and kept my head in my book as though I was studying,  but really my body language was begging the teacher not to call on me. But I was also on the other side as a student, where my confidence led me to the front of the room ready to engage with any question— oblivious to the others in the back seats doing just what I had done in that math class. Most importantly, I highlight that neither of these positions allowed my voice to harmonize with others in the context of a classroom of co-learners.

There are many other ways I facilitate “all-in” engagement: discussion go rounds, anonymous individual writing, paired discussions, carousel brainstorms, “all kernels” popcorn, story sticks. At Project Look Sharp, we also find that student-led media decoding activities engage even the most reticent learners. All these approaches also build student’s skills for mutually respectful, self-regulating engagement.

The important point is to invite students to reflect on why we choose these techniques over the familiar “I ask the question and you raise your hand” approach.

Asking students to reflect on our teaching choices invites them into the discussion as co-learners and co-creators of classroom culture.  The big plus for us as teachers is that we cultivate a classroom support system that we can enlist whenever we encounter challenging topics.

Without this, things can go bad, fast.

During a recent family reunion, I was talking with a few members of the next generation about how we each deal with strong opinions and emotions in classroom settings.  Here’s one such story from a close relative who was a high school junior and a recent transfer to a new high school at the time:

He said,

“We were watching this film about hurricane Katrina and there were some terrible pictures of dead people in the flood. Some of the girls were crying. I was feeling sick. Some kid in the desk behind me made a very rude and racist comment, and I just flipped out. I jumped to my feet and looked down at him. I shouted ‘What the F did you just say? Don’t you know these are people we’re seeing?’  I was so mad. I was ready to fight him right there.”

I asked him what the teacher did.

“Nothing. He didn’t do anything. The room got real quiet. I was steaming. This other kid just started to stutter. He wouldn’t stand up. It only lasted for a minute or two but it could have gotten real bad. I’m not saying I’m proud of how I reacted, but I’d probably do the same thing if it happened again. You don’t disrespect people like that. You just don’t.”

In the situation with my young relative, the conflict could easily have turned physically violent had there been other student comments turning up the heat.  

Most of us who have taught challenging topics have found ourselves in situations that could have spiraled quickly out of control.  

How do we recognize potential “hot spots” before the fire starts?

How do we support students to self-regulate?

How do we help to create “virtuous circles” for classroom communication?

How do we keep “vicious circles” from amplifying the conflict?

Recognizing potential hot spots:

If I were the teacher in my relative’s classroom, I might have started preparing students in the days prior to showing the video, recognizing that a film about a traumatic event might spark powerful responses. I’d tell the students that we’ll be seeing a film about the aftermath of a natural and human disaster. I would set aside time to discuss their  concerns about viewing this, and let them know that they can also talk to me privately before the class, and I’d do whatever I can to make this a safe place to witness this together—including making arrangements for individuals not to see the film, if requested.

Supporting students to self-regulate

On the day of the showing, I would say,
“Like most adults, I’ve been through some traumatic experiences in my own life, and I know how hard it can be to view the suffering of others. This film we’re about to see may trigger some strong emotions for you,  as it did for me. I’d like each of us to take a minute or two in silence to think and write about these two questions:

  1. Why might we decide to view a film about the devastating impacts of hurricane Katrina on the citizens of New Orleans?
  2. What are some adjectives to describe the kind of classroom setting that will allow all of us to view this film with mutual respect?”

I’d then have each student share at least one adjective and I’d write them on the board.

 Creating “virtuous circles” for classroom communication

I’d appreciate the students’ efforts and reflect their thinking back to them:

“Thanks for taking the time to reflect on these questions. I appreciate the silence and thoughtfulness I felt in the room as you were writing. I notice that many of you said that you just wanted the atmosphere to be respectful, can you give me a thumbs up if you agree to being respectful?”

I’d take time to help the students weave their words into a set of agreements for how we will interact. This process sets the tone and ultimately saves time because we don’t have messes to clean up.

I’d also ask “What are some positive things we might do internally if we find ourselves getting upset during this film? What are some positive things we can do for others if we notice their discomfort?”

Preventing “vicious circles” from amplifying the conflict

Sometimes people react to suffering with sarcasm, humor or anger. I’d acknowledge this, and ask “What are some kinds of behavior that would make it harder to see this film together? What respectful actions can you choose if someone else does or says something that makes you uncomfortable?”

Especially important is this question that builds their metacognitive thinking skills around challenging topics: “Why do we always spend time asking these questions about mutual respect before we move into topics like the one we’re exploring today?”

I find that being clear with students about our collective intentions before, during, and after such discussions makes a world of difference.

Students need their teacher’s  leadership in setting examples of nonviolent power that is based in  “power within” and “power with” rather than “power over.”

If the teacher in my young relative’s classroom had jumped up and tried to exert dominance over these two young men in that moment of intense conflict, we all can imagine the potentially explosive results.  On the other hand, staying silent as he did ceded all the power to these young men, and that was equally dangerous.

By asserting a clear respectful intention before showing the film and by inviting each class member to offer mutual aid when called for, the teacher demonstrates the kind of peaceful leadership we want to encourage in all our students. This defuses potential conflict before the lights go down, and creates an explicit commitment to have each other’s backs.

Moreover, this support system invites the calm self-confidence that Robert Frost reminds us is the fundamental ground of solid educational practice.

Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” – Robert Frost

Sox Sperry