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Back to School: Civil Discourse in the Classroom


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.


  • 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

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