3 Steps Toward Making Space for Dialogue

Last month I started what will (hopefully) be a semester-long series of my attempts to tackle all of the messy, controversial real world happenings with my students in a way that somehow creates space for real dialogue, pushes students to consider other perspectives, but also protects vulnerable voices…and does it in a largely virtual space.  Just thinking about it makes me sweaty, honestly. All of those “oh no!” moments that are bound to happen: a tense exchange, a thoughtless comment, a voice silenced. I know I’m going to make mistakes, but I’m committed to trying, rethinking, revising, and working to get it right because I believe my students need space to have these conversations. 

A Toe in the Water

We started the year slowly. Lots of community building, lots of playing around with virtual learning, and lots of work around the rhetorical triangle–the connection between the speaker, audience, and purpose. Since my purpose was to gently ease into weighty conversations with my (mostly) virtual audience, I started with a unit on hope. We looked at all kinds of texts where specific choices were made to project a hopeful message in a troubled time. We read  John Lewis’s Op-Ed published on the day of his funeral, Naomi Shihab-Nye’s Gate A4, watched this Nike commercial, and examined Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. With each text, I was trying to nudge them towards the words of Shihab-Nye’s poem: “This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.” What would/could/should the shared world of our classroom look like? 

These texts helped us begin some important conversations about injustice and discrimination, but we spent the bulk of our time examining the writers’’ words and beliefs–not digging into our own beliefs. In a normal year, we would shift from discussing the beliefs in the texts we were reading to our own pretty organically. I’d sense they were ready to discuss something, I’d be able to read the vibe in the room, and we’d dive in. Something shocking in the news? I’d throw a tweet or two up on the projector, and we’d start there. 

This year, it’s very different. Lessons are often delivered to a wall of black boxes. Engagement is there in other ways, but the easy teacher tricks of reading faces and reactions? Gone. 

Three weeks in, we’d done enough work to be relatively comfortable with surface level interaction, but I wasn’t so sure that they trusted me enough for open dialogue about tough issues. I didn’t have a clear read on them, so I wasn’t willing to dive into controversial topics without a clear structure. If I can’t read them, they probably can’t read each other.  Asking kids to make that dive–into water they can’t see! with maybe sharks in it!–seems…mean.  This year, more than ever, kids need some low pressure ways to stick their toes in the water when it comes to working with hot button issues in class. They need some clear guidelines for how to move toward open dialogue–slowly, gently and with lots of time to get used to the water.

Here’s what we did. 

Step 1: My Triangle

Since we had already spent so much time analyzing other texts for the intersections of Speaker, Audience and Purpose, I decided that was a logical place to start. I made some models of different things that matter to me and shared a few with the students . I told them these triangles would be the jumping off point for argumentative essays we’d be writing. We’d be focusing on all the writerly choices we’d need to make to reach our intended audiences and achieve our stated purposes. 

One example of a triangle I shared with students

What made it low pressure? Students had a few days to complete their slides in a shared Google Slides Presentation and a few quickly set the tone. As soon as they started, the rest were off to the races. They could poke around and look at everyone’s work as they worked and that seemed to ease tension because they knew what to expect from their peers. And, I purposely threw in a silly one in my models. Very few took that route, but I wanted to give kids an ‘out’ who just weren’t ready to tackle sharing something about which they’re incredibly passionate. I knew they’d still get exposed to all of our class discussion and have many chances to chime in. If they’re not ready to share their own, that’s fine. I don’t think it’s time to push…yet.

Step 2: Show and Tell

Students chose a wide range of issues on which to focus. In some ways, though we had spent the past three weeks getting to know one another, THIS day was when I felt like I was really getting to know them. They were brave and honest and authentic with one another. I’d love to share all of them, but here are a few to give you an idea of the range of issues they chose. 

I shared my screen and let the students go to work. As each student explained their triangle to the class, we had a back channel Google Doc going with comments. I’ll admit–I was skeptical about how all these black boxes would interact with one another. Up until this point they’d been pretty amenable to any task I’d given them, but 1-1 feedback seemed like a bigger ask. I was wrong. They quickly dove in and gave specific feedback about each others’ topics.  

What made it low pressure?  Students had a very clear frame for how to talk to one another about these issues. It wasn’t “give feedback on the issue” but rather “give feedback on how the writer can best communicate this stance.” This was key at this stage in the game because students didn’t need to be brave and “call out” their peers. Rather, they could rely on questions we had been asking of all texts for the last three weeks. For example, if a student identifies their purpose as “convincing my audience that abortion is a sin” and the audience is “people who are pro-choice” there is a perfect opportunity to talk about that connection between audience and purpose. Is your audience likely to care that you think it’s a sin? Does that change how you approach this? 

Making the feedback about our work as writers and not about our personal beliefs was the toe in the water my students needed to begin. It gave them language to gently engage with one another. 

Step 3: Drafting and Conferring

After students shared their triangles, we spent a few days examining mentor texts of solid arguments (1, 2, 3). We looked at different choices made by writers, how those choices aligned with purpose and audience, and then went on our merry ways to begin drafting. 

At that point, I wanted them to share those drafts with each other and get some feedback, but I just didn’t think many of them would still be comfortable screen sharing a whole draft. Remember–I’m dealing with mostly black boxes here! Instead, I created a smaller feedback activity that only asked them to share one paragraph. Group members were given some feedback starters to help guide the discussion: 

I think you’re doing a nice job of connecting to your audience here ____________________

because ____________________________

Have you thought about addressing _______________________ and how that might change ______________________________

I’m not sure about the tone of this part _____________________. Hope are you hoping that will “land” with your audience?  

When you claim ______________________, I’m not sure you’re completely proving it. Can you talk me through that? 

What made it low pressure? Before I put students in breakout rooms to complete this activity, I modeled it with a paragraph of my own . I asked them to give me feedback and use the feedback starters on me. That definitely helped break the ice a little, but I knew that I was still asking a lot of some of them (share your writing, on a topic that might be considered controversial,with people you barely know, whose faces you may not be able to even see). Knowing that, I thought it was important to engineer the groups a little . After watching the students present their triangles and going through the feedback, I had a much better sense of who might work well with whom. I didn’t divide students into like minded groups, but I was able to spread out the strongest voices into smaller groups so that no one would dominate and no one would be working with completely opposing viewpoints. Full disclosure–some of the breakout rooms were awesome and some were… a little less than awesome. I was able to pop in and out throughout the hour and saw some lovely beginnings of trust being built among writers.

So is any of this enough?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know. As I wrote this post, I kept thinking, “Man..get to it already, Maguire. Gloves off! When are you going to let the kids dig into each others’ arguments? Some of these are…um…in need of digging.” 
I’m not usually one to tip toe so much in classes, but this year is just so dramatically different. I can’t imagine being a student learning from home and not knowing the new rules of engagement for this type of learning. What does it feel like to wonder if anyone agrees with you and have no way of reading the room? What does it feel like to put your writing out onto a screen, in a shared space where you don’t feel completely safe?  I think this approach makes sense for my students this year. We won’t stop with these toes in the water, but we will continue to move slowly and be gentle with one another.


What are you doing to help your students navigate discussions in these challenging times? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below, Twitter @TeacherHattie or on the Moving Writers Facebook page.

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