There are conversations in the classroom that are hard to have. They can be about history; they can be about what is happening in a neighborhood today; they can be about what’s happening around the world.
The ball often lands at an educator’s feet. How can the conversations start? How can they be worthwhile? How can a conversation change anything?
Cornelius Minor facilitated an on-the-fly addition to the 2016 ILA Conference and Exhibits program in Boston Sunday simply titled “Impromptu Conversation Led by Cornelius Minor.” The session was meant to engage ILA colleagues about how to talk about recent tragedies around the world—events that have had conference attendees talking, that have had the media enraptured, that have left most people flummoxed about what to do next.
Minor, a staff developer for Teachers College at Columbia University and a strong advocate for equity in the classroom, did not spend an hour rehashing new stories from the last month, nor did he rail against injustices. Instead, he took the time to show how to model a conversation about a difficult topic using a method that could be used on a variety of subjects or tailored for a variety of classrooms.
His philosophy is that to talk about emotionally charged or difficult topics effectively, you need to start simple. He showed a silent cartoon clip about the impact a situation had on one individual. Despite great room for interpretation of the clip, he allowed for little discussion, which served as a way of collecting thoughts and readying oneself more before communicating.
Questions were posed including, Why did you come? How do you feel? How do you hope to feel? Starting in partnerships, the standing-room only group dialoged. Eventually, discussion groups of two, four, eight, then whole-room discussed more challenging questions about the role literacy educators play in getting students to talk about tough topics.
There was talk about dominant and minority communities, parental reaction to difficult conversations, and reaction to assumed opinions.
Attendees included classroom teachers, school administrators, researchers, and parents in the form of exhibitors and other support staff. In conversations that sometimes became emotional, Minor asked several questions, including How do you engage parents who don’t want teachers to raise difficult topics in the classroom? Then questions moved on to others people asking What can I do? How can I effect change? What is next?
Between questions, Minor encouraged people to take time to think before speaking. In between answers, when emotions began to run high, he paused the conversation for 15 seconds to “reset” the room and did the same each time four people had shared. He said whether it is group of adults or students, it’s important to take time and keep balance in the room, and pausing or moving the conversation is one way to guide students through thoughtful discussion.
When the discussion continued, one man said it’s important to realize these issues and tragedies are not about the abstract, they are about life.
“I need us to realize the topic we’re talking about is not academic,” he said.
Another added, “The structure in school is not reflective of the reality our children are living in.” He said children come into schools worried about what is happening in their neighborhood and across the country as much, and sometimes more than, adults. That ignoring their concerns and their needs to share their feelings is to deny their voices.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all answer,” said a district superintendent. “We’ve quieted the voices of our children. We’ve quieted the voices of our teachers. We need to let teachers do their work.”
At the end of the hour, Minor suggested work continue through the creation of a letter teachers could submit to administrators about how important it is to talk to students about controversial topics including race, sexuality, and gender. He also suggested working on a “courage toolkit” that would give educators ideas on how to approach difficult conversations with fellow teachers and administration, and even how to build trust with parents.
In the end, many stayed behind to continue the conversation; Minor said he would be in the room as long as anyone wanted to stay. And while there were no concrete answers when the crowd broke up, there was the beginning of a community.
April Hall is editor of Literacy Daily. A journalist for 20 years, she has specialized in education, writing and editing for newspapers, websites, and magazines.