How to start thinking about civil discourse in the classroom?
I started to write my blog a year ago. I devoted my first blog entry to talk about how to prepare students for a lifelong commitment to learning and social responsibility. As a result of my participation in a summer institute on Ethical Leadership in June 2015, I wrote three mission statements for my Spanish courses, and I explained how I included the ethical component in my classes. Ethical leadership is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others. It is related to concepts such as trust, honesty, consideration, charisma, and fairness. Leaders know what they value. (Click here to read the blog entry).
Two weeks ago at Heschel School, I attended an orientation session on civil discourse and how to include some language about classroom behavior –verbal and non-verbal– that is attentive and respectful to others. Civil discourse is an engaged conversation intended to enhance understanding. Thinking about the courses I teach and reflecting on how to incorporate civil discourse in my classroom, I would like to link the notion of civil discourse with that of ethical leadership. If students investigate different ways in which we as individuals make a difference in the world we live in, then civil discourse should be seen as a component of engaging positively, that is, as a part of serving and coordinating our actions toward understanding and intellectual and personal growth.
If our classes are conducted as seminars and value participatory and interactive learning, then civil discourse—as an engaged discussion— is the language spoken in our classes. Students will thrive at the personal and communal levels with that of their peers, while they help move the class community towards its mission and improve the lives of its members. I think we could approach this conversation with students by talking about respect of the participants in the dialogue, etiquette, and politeness. This is not necessary to say that we should not teach students to be polite to each other, but to teach students that good manners are part of social education. Civil discourse requires not only good manners, but also standards of good conduct towards others and towards the members of the civil society they are part of. Civil discourse is a discourse that supports the societal good. Before we engage in the dialogue of controversial topics, I believe that we could start the conversation by openly discussing civil discourse and education in connection with our school's core values. In my course description and goals, I included the following statement written by Patrick J. Ashton in "Facilitating civil discourse in the classroom" (2006):
"Each person in this course has unique prior experiences and a unique viewpoint to share. Though disagreement and even conflict may occur, I expect your cooperation in maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect. When participating in discussions, it is perfectly acceptable to have strong opinions ñ in fact I encourage you to do so. I also encourage you to discuss your own personal experience and relate it to that of others. In the process, however, I expect you to respect the basic intelligence and humanity of each participant in the discussion. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is a commitment to mutual respect. Hateful and demeaning speech will not be tolerated."
In order for students to articulate their own visions about how to engage, serve, and improve their communities, so that they can find their voices and make a difference, they should comport or behave themselves in a way that they can contribute to the good of the communities. While students acquire a new vocabulary of ethical concepts, ideas, values and virtues, they reflect on our past and present and imagine our future to promote justice and peace. I think that a wonderful way to directly approach this issue in the classroom would be by talking about our own concerns and fears while students work together to address those issues through individual or group work. We could talk about how our cultural norms shape our own discussions at home or at school. This conversation could help us create a space for mutual understanding.
On my Spanish 4 class, we started talking about Hispanics in the U.S., which is a topic that will allow us in the future to discuss sensitive issues related to demography, politics, economics, and social movements. We just began with a brief reading about the main three groups of Hispanics in the U.S. (Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans) and students gave oral presentations on a news article that they looked for and presented in class. We all made connections about what they read in our classroom. Students presented articles about different topics regarding Hispanics in the U.S., including education, immigration, politics, sports, and technology, among others. So far we have had a civil discussion of these issues, as my students only reported to their peers their findings without necessarily expressing how they feel about these issues. However, I would certainly like to keep the conversation going through the school year and –hopefully– have it evolved into a much more controversial one that will allow us to continue our discussions civilly in the classroom.
Julia, Talia, and Aaron give an oral presentation about the decrease of Hispanic population in the United States
Leo presents about Reynaldo Cuevas' case, a Dominican man shot by a police officer after leaving a store
Allie and Dylan talk about the lack of Hispanic moderators in presidential debates
Dani and Jeremy give a presentation about immigration
Alex, Eliana, and Nathan present about sports, education, and technology
During the first days of classes in Spanish 3, students have reviewed the following: identifying and describing people and things; present tense of ser and estar; articles, adjectives, and agreement; discussing everyday activities; present tense of -ar verbs; present tense of -er and -ir verbs; present tense of tener, venir, and ir; stem-changing verbs (e:ie, o:ue, e:i); preterite tense of regular verbs; preterite of ser and ir, and other irregular preterites; and verbs that change meaning in the preterite.
Students answered questions about their summer vacation; described their family, relative, and friends; wrote a letter to a friend explaining what they do in a typical day and their plans for the weekend using ir a + infinitive and tener que + infinitive; wrote questions about their lives using a list of irregular verbs; and composed a paragraph about what they did last weekend.
Here we see Callie and Jordana acting out a conversation about the first day of classes (Act. 2 El primer día de clases, Descubre 2, p. 2) and students interviewing each other. Ben and Benji and Julia and Joey introduced their classmates to the rest of the Spanish 3 class.
Callie and Jornada acting out a conversation
Spanish 3 students interviewing each other
Ben and Benji talking to the class about each other's activities
Joey and Julia talking to the class about each other's activities
During the first days of classes in Spanish 2, students talked about what they did in their summer break and studied the verbs saber and conocer. They were also introduced to the indirect object pronouns and the preterite tense of regular and irregular verbs through Shakira's "Antología."
Students did a project with the title ¿Cómo soy yo? (What am I like?) in which they described themselves using at least three physical characteristics, three character traits, and three clothing items with their corresponding colors. They were assessed on these required elements, as well as on noun-adjective agreement in gender and number; spelling, capitalization, and punctuation; and creativity and neatness. Students handed their projects in and, after correcting their Power Point presentations, we all ended up with a class project. Students then added sound to the Power Point slides by recording their presentations orally, as we all make a series of videos of the class.
Students learned the uses of saber and conocer, more uses of the personal a, and other verbs conjugated like conocer. We paid attention to the irregular yo forms of saber and conocer and explained all of the different uses of these verbs. We quickly reviewed the direct object pronouns and started talking about the indirect object pronouns.
During the first days of classes in Spanish 1, students were introduced to the following: terms for greetings and goodbyes; identifying where one is from; courtesy expressions; and greeting in the Spanish speaking world.
Students learned greetings, farewell, and courtesy expressions, as they explained their meanings, and introduced each other or other people to the rest of the class. Students identified conversations that seemed to be exchanges between friends and which seemed more formal, paying attention to the use of usted vs. tú. They explained situations in which each form was appropriate.
Ethan, Olivia, and Maya correcting a homework assignment
Students completed a listening comprehension activity (Act. 1 Escuchar, Descubre 1, p. 3) in which they listened to a question and statement and chose the correct response, and they wrote words or phrases for different expressions (Act. 3 Escoger, Descubre 1, p. 3), in which they provided the question or statement that would elicit each item. Students also worked with a partner to put together a scrambled conversation in order (Act. 4 Ordenar, Descubre 1, p. 3), and then they acted it out.
Tara and Eli practicing the greetings, farewells, and courtesy expressions
Students also had the chance to work in groups of three to write and act out three different situations:
1. On your way out of class on the first day of school, you strike up a conversation with the two students who were sitting next to you. You find out each student's name and where he or she is from before you say goodbye and go to your next class.
Julian, Jacobo, and Daniel
2. At the next class you meet up with a friend and find out how he or she is doing. As you are talking, your friend Elena enters. Introduce her to your friend.
Maddie, Sarah, and Maya
3. Make up and act out a real-life situation that you and your classmates can role-play with the language you have learned.