Teachers may discourage discussions about controversial subjects unrelated to school subject matter, but that won’t keep kids from talking about them. Neither will amendments separating Church and state nor laws that forbid debate about science issues (like evolution).
When schools silence conversations about sensitive issues, that doesn’t mean students aren’t talking about them. It means their conversations have gone underground. And that’s a tragedy.
We are bombarded with information about many emotionally-charged issues that may (or may not) be grounded in fact. Many reality television shows teach children how to pit friends against one another, gossip, lie, yell, and fight when faced with conflict. Young people need role models who will guide them through communication landmines that potentially explode when two or more are gathered with differences of opinion.
Conversations about race, culture, religion, and gender usually surface in schools after a child, their families, their beliefs, or their culture have been ridiculed. When we refuse to give students opportunities to explore controversial issues through dialogue, we unintentionally invite them to bully one another.
Adults Fear Politically-Incorrectness. Most adults, particularly those who work with youth, want to be culturally inclusive. At times, we tip-toe around culturally-sensitive time bombs by denying the obvious. Most teachers and youth volunteers, for example, generally agree they treat all teens the same and they do not see color or other differences among youth. (More about this in It’s Not About Race.)
When we ignore skin color, we discount a part of our own unique human identities. When we refuse to discuss issues about inequality or differences among race, culture, gender, or religious practices, we miss priceless opportunities to learn about the experiences of others. Authentic conversations are not possible until we honestly, fearlessly talk and listen to one another about our similarities and differences – including beliefs and biases.
Welcome Opportunities for Dialogue. Every subject in the curriculum provides rich opportunities to engage students in discussion. Current events, laws, and political discontent invite youth to debate, listen, and voice their opinions in ways that promote dialogue:
Establish Discussion Norms. Ground rules for discussion create healthy boundaries for lively debate. I created a discussion contract that students signed (I signed it, too) and posted the norms in the classroom. My role as was to moderate the discussion and remind youth about our agreed norms.
Rules for communication in the classroom include:
Practice “Safe Topic” Discussions. To help students abide by rules for discussion, allow them to practice communication skills about topics that generate less heat. Should secondary students have recess? Should we replace snacks and soft drinks in school vending machines with fruit and bottled water? Discussion about less controversial subjects provide youth with opportunities to practice healthy communication skills.
Ask Students to Clarify Their Questions. A popular story about a small child who created a sketch of a woman who appeared to be pole-dancing splashed across the internet. The artist of the picture wrote “When I grow up, I want to be like Mommy.” When asked “Tell me about your drawing” by her teacher, the child explained her mother sold shovels at Home Depot.
Although the picture was actually drawn by a 17 year-old as a joke, it continues to be a wonderful springboard for a discussion about the value of asking questions before drawing erroneous conclusions.
Asking questions often clarifies the direction of a conversation. For example, one day a third grade student asked, “What’s a tampon?”
I asked, “What do you want to know about tampons?”
“Some women get sick when they use tampons,” she answered.
I explained some women got infections from bacteria when they used tampons. The infections made them sick.
“Oh,” she replied. Satisfied, she returned to her desk.
She did not want to know how to use a tampon. The discussion ended because her question was answered.
Be a good listener when young people ask questions. Do not assume you know what information they want when they ask a question. Ask them questions during discussion. Invite students to question one another when they hear something they don’t understand. Encourage them to explain their points of view. Good questions deepen conversation, provide students with opportunities to share more information, and avoid unnecessary communication pot holes.
There Are No Right or Wrong Opinions. Discussions often become heated because individuals involved in a debate want others to accept their opinions as their own. Encourage children and teens to support their points of view with reliable sources of information. Remind them that the goal of discussion is not necessarily to agree or share the same points of view. The goal is to discuss openly and to listen with respect. The goal is to gain greater understanding of different points of view.
Question the Validity of Internet Content. NPR shared results from a Stanford’s Graduate School of Education study about “fake news.” Eighty percent of the survey student participants did not question internet content sources and accepted most of what they read as fact. Encourage youth to check sources of content on the internet. Do online posts have attribution? Does documentation support the content? Is the content from a reliable source? [There is a difference between content from Abcnews.com (reliable source) and Abcnews.com.co (fake news).] CBS News identified a few of many “fake news” websites.
Identify Reliable Sources of Information. Yale, Oxford, and 4000+ universities throughout the world recommend Encyclopedia Britannica as a trusted reference source. Unlike Wikipedia, updates to Britannica entries are added by informed experts across fields. Scholarpedia also offers reliable sources of information that is fact-checked by professionals. Scholarly journals typically contain information that is research-based and peer-reviewed for accuracy. Explain to young people that information on Wikipedia can be altered by anyone and, as a result, is not a reliable source of information. Internet sites such as Snopes.com, Pulitzer-prize winning Politifact.com, and Fact Checker by The Washington Post help discerning readers determine fact from fiction.
Learn to Distinguish Fact-Based Terminology. If a printed source or movie begins with the words “based on facts,” “based on actual events,” or “based on a true story,” assume large parts of the content are fictitious. Many facts are omitted or changed when movie versions are created from books. However, discussions about events recorded in multiple sources provide students with outstanding opportunities to use higher level thinking skills to compare and contrast information.
Practice What You Preach. Adults must be good role models. If we encourage youth to demonstrate respect to one another, we must follow our own rules and show respect to our peers and children. Young people are very disappointed when they see inconsistencies in our words and behavior. They model behaviors we demonstrate as leaders and mentors. You may be a child’s only adult example of an inclusive and compassionate role model.
Courageous Conversations Are Cornerstones of Relationships. Glenn Singleton, author of Courageous Conversations About Race, explains that courageous conversations “engage those who won’t talk, sustains the conversation when it gets uncomfortable or diverted, and deepens the conversation to the point where authentic understanding and meaningful actions occur.”
Conversations about controversial issues often lead to discussions about other important social concerns such as poverty, immigration, and judicial systems. Courageous dialogue invites us to reject negative bias and evolve as beacons of hope for the future.
Many youth are interested in world events and hungry for opportunities to discuss their concerns. Malala Yousafzai, 17 year-old recipient of the Nobel peace prize, said, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
If we, as adults, don’t engage in conversations about sensitive topics with kids in schools and at home, they will discuss these issues among themselves and use the internet, social media, and reality TV as their sources of information. They’ll keep talking – with or without you.
Every discussion about politics, God, race, sex, and controversial issues create opportunities to build bridges. When we invite young people into meaningful dialogue, they learn to find their own voice.
How can you promote positive communication with young people?
It’s Not About Race reveals how conversations about race and culture open channels to explore perceptions and attitudes.
Children and teens are talking. Using these tips to encourage dialogue and Hear the Voice of Our Youth.
Use these suggestions from How to Be a Good Role Model to examine ways you can inspire teens.
If you want to involve more young people in your organization, check out these tips from What You Must Do to Invite & Involve Youth (So They Want to Stay).