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Back to School 2021: Civil Discourse in the Classroom

Introduction:

The start of the school year means it is time to create a new classroom community. An environment where students can openly discuss and debate topics in a respectful manner helps facilitate learning throughout the year. Whether your classroom will be in-person or remote, this activity can help your students start their year out on a strong footing.

Directions:

  • Remind students that throughout the school year they will be discussing controversial topics as they explore American history and government.
  • Lead a brainstorming session with students by asking them about a time in which they had a negative argument with someone they disagreed with. What did they think made the conversation unproductive? Then have them think of a productive, meaningful conversation with someone they disagreed with. What did they think made the conversation work well?
  • Next, lead a discussion with the class and compile a list of 5 words or phrases that are essential features of a good conversation. Write them down on the board.
  • Either beforehand on your own, or in class with your students, select a “low-stakes debate” topic. This topic should be something that all students in your class will have knowledge of. Examples include:
    • Best superhero
    • Best movie in a certain franchise series
    • Best dog breed
    • Best sports figure in a certain sport

Split students up into a few groups depending on their opinion.

  • Tell students that it is time for them to put their list of features of a good conversation into action! Allow each group to present their opinions before engaging in debate with the others.
  • Once the debate is finished, have students reflect on their conversations by answering the following questions:
    • Did you feel heard during this conversation? Why or why not?
    • How can you apply the skills that you practiced in this debate throughout the school year?
    • In what ways could you apply these skills to your life outside of school?
  • Encourage students to keep their answers to the above questions and reflect on them when they take up more controversial conversations later in the year

Extension:

Are you looking for ways that students can continue to practice civil discourse with their peers? Think the Vote is an online platform that asks students to weigh in on current event debates. A new question is released every Monday, and the winners of each week will win an Amazon gift card, BRI swag, plus be entered for a chance to win the $1,000 grand prize! This week’s question is: Should the United States Try to Nation Build Around the World?