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April 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 7

Tell Us About

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Tell us about a time when you navigated a particularly difficult discussion topic in the classroom.

Social-emotional learning
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Credit: Kali Nine LLC (Kali Nine LLC (Photographer) - [None]

Breaking Down Fences

When a student wrote a racial slur on campus this fall at my urban public high school, it brought up negative feelings in my own students. They were reminded of the derogatory terms we studied when reading the racially charged play Fences by August Wilson. As I learned of their feelings, I considered how I might approach talking about it with my classes in a way that would allow them to voice their anger and frustration and generate growth and healing. In the past few years, my school has implemented restorative justice circles in our advisory classes, so I decided to use that strategy in my general English classes as a way to open up the conversation and give students a way to process this event. The discussion brought up the feelings that would have otherwise remained under the surface and allowed us to build more of a connection.
—Kira Hopkins, English teacher, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle, Washington

Difficult Teacher Conversations

In one early experience, I was a new principal supervising a seasoned teacher. Her ineffective classroom management created an unsafe and unproductive environment. I began the conversation with her with an objective summary of my observation. I was matter-of-fact, asking open-ended questions intended to uncover the root cause of student misconduct. It was not that she was a poor teacher. It was a breakdown in expectations and routines. These conversations, by their nature, place even the best teachers on the defensive. An empathic approach that makes no judgments and seeks to understand the teacher's perspective will increase the likelihood of success. Don't delay. I did here, and had to work to overcome the teacher's perception that she had done something so horribly wrong that I didn't even want to tell her.
—Brandy Price, charter school board vice president, T.I.M.E. Community Schools, Los Angeles, California

Restoring Calm

As a young high school teacher during school integration, I was asked to help restore order after a race riot erupted at my school. The skirmish started when a mob of white male students lined up with baseball bats to meet an arriving school bus that brought students across town from their predominantly black and economically depressed neighborhoods. The instigators were the sons of police officers who were deeply opposed to school integration. Local police were called, but they failed to arrive in time. The skirmish broke out into a full-blown riot outside and inside the school. Students were jumped and bloodied, glass trophy cases were broken, a pregnant teacher was punched in the stomach and sent to the hospital. News of the resulting bedlam spread through the town. School was closed for a week while 15 student ringleaders and their retaliators met in the basement of a church to sort out the grievances. Three mediators, including myself, a minister, and a professor, worked with the students using restorative justice practices. By the end of the week, each student committed to avoiding further confrontation.
—Sheri Williams, associate professor of educational leadership, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Be Open to Listening

On November 9, 2016, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I returned to school and gathered my 3rd graders, most from El Salvador and Honduras, for our morning meeting. Having heard their concerns about the election for several weeks, I opened the talk up to allow them to say anything. We sat in silence for a bit, and then one student said, "Donald Trump was elected." I let them carry the conversation in whatever ways they needed, listening closely to determine if any of my students might need to talk more with me or a counselor that day. In hindsight, I wish I had encouraged more discussion prior to the election. This was an event that caused significant stress on my young students, and I believe they would have benefited from the opportunity to discuss it much earlier.
—Jennifer Orr, teacher, Fairfax County Public Schools, Springfield, Virginia

Judicious Conversations

I feel like every time I engage students in a discussion of the judicial system that I am entering into particularly difficult territory. Discussions relative to U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Obergefell v. Hodges, Roe v. Wade, or McDonald v. Chicago have the potential to become divisive and polarizing, and I know I need to choose my words carefully. Navigating those discussions carefully and judiciously is complicated, but understanding your students' backgrounds and biases sure makes it less complicated.
—Mark Pugh, educator, Lipscomb Academy, Nashville, Tennessee

Listen to Understand, Not to Win

Listen to understand and not just to respond. The first time I heard this as an active listening technique, I realized that I often listened solely to wait for a break so I could respond with my own opinion. I was not actively listening for another's perspective and perception of the situation. Once I switched my mindset, active listening gave me a better understanding of the person. I began using techniques like paraphrasing and asking wondering questions. This shifted the focus to compromise, not "winning" a conversation. Through active listening, you can always get to know someone better, which can bring more value to a situation through validating others.
—Alissa Farias, data coach, Tacoma Public Schools, Tacoma, Washington

Let Students Support One Another

When I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with my 12th grade Advanced Placement students, I asked them to write introspective journals that mirrored the style of the book and focused on a dark moment in their lives. After finishing the book, we had a circle discussion where students were invited, but not required, to share excerpts from their journals with the class. Nearly every student shared.
I thought I knew about my students and their life experiences, but the discussion opened up another dimension that had been completely hidden from me. As their teacher, I was completely at a loss for how to respond to the challenges my students described. Fortunately, my silence opened up space for students to support each other. They asked questions, shared words of encouragement, related to similar experiences, and showed a level of maturity, vulnerability, and bravery that blew me away.
My biggest regret was not involving more adults—especially counselors—in a conversation that was inevitably going to unearth intense feelings. But I also saw in that moment the importance of adults stepping aside and empowering students to love and support each other.
—Andrew Knips, leadership coach, Teach Plus, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

When Tragedy Strikes

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—Christina Mier, gifted and talented educator, El Paso Independent School District, El Paso, Texas. Photo courtesy of Christina Mier.

Preparing for the Worst Scenario

When we carry out our mandated school-security training each fall, I have to envision an active shooter in my school and talk about it with my students. A sad reality of teaching in our country in 2020 is that school shootings have been, and continue to be, an educator's greatest nightmare. I have to look out at a roomful of 11-year-olds and engage them in scenarios of throwing furniture in front of doors or running for their lives across neighborhood streets. My heart breaks at the images of the tragedies at Parkland, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Columbine that are burned into my brain, and breaks even more that I have to bring even a hint of those awful events to my students, only six weeks into 6th grade. Every year I search for the perfect balance of information, composure, seriousness, and empathy—but I never quite get it exactly right in my own mind. The unease that this is even a thing we do will never leave me, though I know I will be doing it again next year and the year after that.
—Stephen Guerriero, social studies teacher, Needham Public Schools, Needham, Massachusetts

Respectful Compromise

One of my students had recently moved into her grandmother's house. The student was new to the town and just wanted to fit in, and the grandmother wasn't used to having a student in high school and had a strong, established relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At back to school night, I brought up that we would be talking about evolution in our honors biology class, and the grandmother took exception to that concept. She sent me a brochure about her faith and kindly asked if there was any way to exempt the student from this part of the curriculum. We agreed upon a solution that the student would only have to acknowledge what scientists say about the topic and not agree or disagree. Although it was not an ideal solution, I felt it was more important that the grandparent felt respected and the student felt included in the class.
—Maggie Moore, honors biology and anatomy teacher, Hononegah High School, Rockton, Illinois

Share your responses to upcoming questions at www.ascd.org/tellusabout.

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