Having difficult classroom conversations

This summer, I took part in a teacher training session for PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs. It was not at all about class news meetings and  it was about so many technical things involving lighting and frame rates and B-rolls that I felt almost illiterate. But it was also about how students understand reporting, and it helped me think more clearly about the things we need to teach.

The part that most changed how I approach my classroom, the thoughts I refer back to just about every time we hold a class news meeting, came during a presentation from a Georgetown University professor of history and African-American studies. Marcia Chatelain talked, quite simply, about having difficult classroom conversations.

And honestly, if you’re going to have a student reporting lab or, in our case, hold class news meetings, you’re going to have difficult conversations.  Students come with different experiences, different levels of understanding, different judgements and worries. How do you build a classroom environment where students can talk openly about difficult topics, share their own experiences, and ask questions?

Well, Chatelain says that first, you have to just let them talk. (For the record, most of the other teachers at this conference run high school reporting labs, so I’m sure they took different things away than I did.  This is more or less my elementary school translation of her topic.)

One of the things that’s always bothered me when having our class news meetings is that, when I’d ask: “Does anyone have a news story they’d like to share?” especially early on, inevitably someone would raise their hand to talk about a movie they saw that weekend, or a parent’s upcoming trip out of town, or a car accident they drove past on the way home.  And while I’d let them talk briefly about these experiences, part of me was always secretly plotting ways to develop a rule that would keep the conversation on a more productive track, conjuring some technical definition of “news” I could pull out that would prevent many of these stories from being shared in the first place.

But guess what?  One of the first steps toward building a classroom where you can have those deeper, more intense conversations is to have this small talk. I’m not advocating turning the whole meeting over to fender-benders and blockbusters.  But, Chatelain pointed out, listening to your students’ stories lets them know that you care about them.

“It shows them that I’m willing to engage in the things that matter to them,” she said.  And there’s another benefit: “The more we talk, the more the students become real people to each other.”

So having these small conversations allows you to share more deeply when it comes time for the big discussions. The students know and have some understanding of each other, and they’ve built some trust in you. Without that groundwork, she noted, the big conversations “will always be awkward and creepy.”

But even before starting with these simpler conversations, Chatelain suggested taking a bigger step backward and doing some self-examination.  You need, she said, to think about yourself at the age of the students you’re now teaching. You need to remember your own experiences and worries and difficulties at that age. You have to recognize your own issues and triggers.  You have to understand that those experiences impact you.

Why? Because the tone from the top (i.e. you) matters during these conversations. You can change the temperature of a discussion based on your response.  You might need to suggest pushing the pause button on a conversation, asking a student to come back with more information before continuing.  You might need to say: “I’m uncomfortable with this conversation.  We need to pause.” Or you might instead need to say: “This conversation is really difficult for me, but I think it’s important because …”

In other words, we need to be prepared.  And perhaps the best piece of advice she gave for doing that was also, for me, the most unexpected. Essentially, she said you  need to look around your school.  Can you think of five allies among your fellow teachers?  Identify your allies.  Think about what support you have, as a teacher. And then don’t be afraid to ask for that support, to use it.  In my case, I was easily able to think of five allies … and then quickly realized I would never go to them for support.  Why? I don’t know.  I do know that this year, I’m trying to change that.

Last point: be careful about making assumptions.  It might be easier to frame your discussions with the idea that every student has a parent, or has eaten a Thanskgiving turkey dinner, or has their own bed to sleep in each night. But, she said, every time you do that you’re sending the message: “This is the only way I see the world.” And the reality is: our students are living in all sorts of different worlds, some familiar to us and some not. We need to recognize that.

“The more you can telegraph that there are all sorts of ways to live in the world, the more successful your classroom will be,” she said.

And then, your classroom becomes the place where you can share ideas, where you can have those difficult conversations.





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