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Setting Classroom Expectations for Trust, Tolerance, and Civil Discourse

At the beginning of the school year, it is important to set the tone for the classroom culture for the year: one that is free from hate, trusting, and tolerant. In social studies, in particular, the foundations of civil discourse are necessary structures and expectations to teach students in the first few days of school. All history classes deal with instances of oppression, and students must be able to engage in difficult topics in the past and in their own lives. The tragic events in Charlottesville two years ago serve as an important topic to demonstrate to students how these values play out in society and are crucial to discuss to help students make meaning out of them. This lesson is designed to help teachers build a trusting learning environment while also contextualizing the events in Charlottesville. More resources can be found under the Twitter hashtag, #charlottesvillecurriculum.


  • Students will be able to create classroom expectations and norms based on the characteristics of group ideals
  • Students will be able to reflect on and discuss the events in Charlottesville in order to model civic discourse around difficult issues in society.


1. Ask students to brainstorm answer to the following questions:

  • Think about the different groups you belong to (i.e., sports teams, communities, family, clubs, hobbies, etc.).
  • What are the characteristics of these groups that ensure that they function well and achieve their goals?

2. As students generate answers, keep a running list on the board. Answers may include

  • Members take care of each other
  • Organized to provide for its people
  • Rules/Norms that people abide by
  • Members love or care about each other
  • People are respectful
  • Equality and individual liberties are valued
  • People identify with the group/place
  • Problems are discussed with civility/aired out in the open
  • There are consequences for breaking rules

3. Ask students: What are some characteristics of group members in these groups to help make it that way? Again, generate a list on the board of student responses. Such characteristics may include:

  • Kind
  • Respectful
  • Helpful
  • Accepting of differences
  • Hard-working
  • Conscientious (thinks about other)
  • Tries to do what’s best
  • Listen to each other
  • Open-mindedness

4. Ask students: What can prevent a group or group members from embodying these characteristics? What gets in the way of groups or communities from functioning well?

5. Provide students with Handout A: Charlottesville Discussion and ask students to read the article in small groups. (Alternatively, show the video from the same Washington Post article. ) Students should discuss the following in small groups of three to four:

  • What happened in Charlottesville? What actions were taken, and why?
  • How does this compare to the list of characteristics of exemplary groups that you generated?
  • How does this demonstrate what can get in the way of a strong community or group?
  • How can we apply this to our interactions in the classroom?

6. Have students share their responses and reflections as a whole group. It is important here that students volunteer their answers, and that all students who want to be heard have the time and space to do so.

7. Explain to students that racism, hate, and oppression are complex topics that have taken many forms throughout history and that Charlottesville is one example of the necessity of civil discourse in society. A foundation for discussing these issues is a trusting and respectful space where they can develop their own ideas. Then, connect this goal to the classroom expectations, which students will develop in the form of a “classroom commitment.” Using Handout B: Classroom Commitment & Reflection, students will make a pledge based on what they have learned in two ways:

Step 1: Students will collaborate to create a visible “Classroom Commitment” of classroom expectations. Encourage students to be creative (i.e., they can each write a word, it can be symbols and images, they can bullet point it, name their class, etc.). These are the expectations that they will all agree to abide to in their interactions with each other throughout the year, and should be in a format that can be visible in the room at all times. Each class should create their own classroom commitment; encourage each class to do something unique to them. As students collaborate, allow for student leadership, but ensure that all voices are heard and contribute to the classroom commitment.

Step 2: Students will individually write a reflection about what they have learned from the events in Charlottesville. In this reflection they should discuss:

  • How they were feeling during the day’s lesson and as they watched the Charlottesville events unfold
  • Which characteristics of strong groups and group members most resonate with their personal beliefs
  • How they, individually, will contribute to the class commitment and as a member of the class “group,” how they will act towards their peers.

At this point, a more in-depth conversation about the events in Charlottesville can take place, or the Classroom Commitment can be referenced before discussing other difficult topics that may arise throughout the year. The Classroom Commitment can be referred to throughout the year to begin discussions that may be difficult for some students, or particularly heated (as in a debate), or simply as a framework for behavior. Additionally, students’ personal reflections and commitments can be saved to refer to with individual students (i.e., “Remember, you agreed to be respectful to everyone in the class. Did you follow through on that commitment today?”)