Friday, August 23, 2013

A Jesuit's Guide to Sensitive Classroom Discussions

Every teacher, particularly if the field involves having to discuss moral and social issues, will eventually be confronted with having to discuss a particularly sensitive issue. The range is seemingly infinite: homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, divorce, welfare, war, immigration. The high school classroom, in particular, is inordinately susceptible to becoming a place of rancorous debate rather than reasoned reflection.

Over three years of teaching, I developed the following Four-Fold Strategy for Sensitive Discussions. My friend Bobby, for whom I composed the Advice to a New Teacher, reminded me last night of this strategy and it spurred me to compose this. As always, if it is helpful: use it. If it doesn't suit your needs: ignore it.

Step One: Set the Stage

Explain to the students that you're all about to engage in a thought exercise. You want to take them through a procedure, a way of thinking, to give them the tools to talk about sensitive issues. Note: your responsibility is threefold. First, you need to be the presider over this exercise and must prevent any hijacking. Two, you have to "take the temperature" of the class regularly and make sure that you have a general consensus from the body. Third, you need to make sure that the students see recorded on the board what they've said. When necessary, for teachers in a particular tradition, you'll have to make "friendly amendments" to reflect, say, the Catholic Church's teaching on the issue.

Step One: Name the POSITIONS Involved in the Issue

Begin by acknowledging that controversial topics are seldom easily resolved. Take any major issue: let us, for instance, take abortion. What are the key positions people take toward abortion? By position, I mean nothing other than the basic label describing one's stance toward the issue. In my experience, students will come up with four basic positions. Each of these positions gets its own space on the board. However many positions on an issue the students can take, you need a column for each in order to represent the diversity of classroom views. Thus, the first step might look something like this (forgive my lack of ability with computer graphics):

Check to make sure that the students agree that this reflects the POSITIONS, the handy labels describing where one stands on an issue. If they agree, move to step two. If they feel something needs to be added, do so. Remember: you're not yet looking for reasons, just positions.

Step Two: Name the VALUES Held by Each Position

Systematically go through each of the positions and solicit from the students what each position VALUES. By keeping them directed toward a common goal of understanding what each position values, you'll prevent them from attacking one another. By encouraging them to think through each position, you'll help them to see the complexity of various issues.

For the sake of space, I'm only including a few values under each point. The key to this stage is getting the students to think along with each position to uncover what each one values. Thus, the board at some stage may look a bit like this:

This is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, your students will probably be able to give lots of values. Keep this in mind: what vivifies each position? What is important to each position? In the Catholic Schools, you may have to make the "friendly amendment" to give the Church's rational behind its position, what the Church values. 
In my experience, when we get under the surface of the positions, students are rather accepting of other people's values. Consider this a benign symptom of their being (in general) relativists: their attitude can, frequently, be "if it's true for you, great." I don't agree with this, of course, but I would certainly use it to my advantage. If done properly, this stage of the discussion should still be relatively "cool" because they are thinking together, not against one another. 

Again, make sure the students feel the various values are adequately represented. That they see their values reflected gives them a sense that their voice is being heard and it gives it an objective space on the board so that, in the next stage, they don't feel as if they are being personally critiqued. 

Stage Three: CRITIQUE  of Positions/Values

Starting at a point, draw the students into the process of offering a critique of each position from the standpoint of another. Thus, if you start with Pro-Life, critique the "Moderately Pro-Life," the "Moderately Pro-Choice," and the "Pro-Choice." Keep the critique to what is one the board: remember, they have agreed that this is an adequate representation of their thoughts in stage one and two.

As you engage in the critique, it will take your teacher's finesse to help uncover certain commonalities or family resemblances between values. Even the student who may be most virulently pro-choice will accede some merit to the virulently pro-life student's values. Further, for young adults who already are grappling with authority issues, you're not imposing the Church's views but, rather, proposing the reason why the Church holds the position it does. If they can see the rationale behind its position, it goes a long way in working its way through their heads and into the hearts.

Stage Four: Imaginative Resolution of Conflict

Recall for them that we have four (or however many) different positions. On the level of position, they can be thought to be irreconcilable. If I think women should have unrestricted access to abortion (my position), it's hardly able to gel with your position that it should be illegal.  Yet, when we peer together at the values each position enshrines, we may see a way for an imaginative resolution. Imaginative resolutions looks at how the various positions can come together. Often raised are the issues of societal well-being, access to resources, the possibility of adoption, support for young mothers, etc..

The students may say that abortion should not be a viable choice but, given the current social conditions, it is an unwanted consequence of societal injustice. No, this is not at all the Church's position (which you will have to defend). Nevertheless, you've gotten a toe-hold: rather than being ardently pro-choice, some ground has been ceded and a sense of the bigger picture has been gained. Instead of thinking of their various positions on abortion/immigration/healthcare as solitary units, you can start to help them see the interconnections between each each and help them to appreciate the whole-cloth values of the Church.

In my experience, I found that engaging in this sort of exercise on several different topics begins to weave a very large cloth for the students. That is, they start to see the coherence of the Church's views on various issues (the values of the Church, reflected in its social teaching, are consistent) and helping the students to name them and engage with them is a great step in helping in appropriation. The goal of this exercise is not to change their minds in the first go-round. Instead, you start exposing them to the values of a tradition in order that they might see the rationale and coherence of the values and take those values for themselves.


What I have offered is one way of engaging in sensitive classroom discussions. I found that it short-circuited the desire of students who wanted only to debate because it actually forced them to think along with positions they disagreed with. I take as my operative assumption that I'm not going to change anyone's position. I can, however, share my values and help to see why my values are coherent and reasonable and trust that these values will speak to the heart of my interlocutor.

As much as this is helpful for guiding a classroom of sophomores or seniors, imagine trying to carry this out in the workplace. I suspect this would be a salutary exercise for intra-office conflict management. 

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