Preparing Adolescents for Civic Virtue through Courageous Conversations
By Barbara Whitlock, Humanities Coordinator at Montrose School.
In early October 2020, when the US presidential election season was churning in the news and throughout social media, I announced our upcoming civics unit to my 11th grade AP Language & Composition students with my characteristic enthusiasm, hoping to prime their excitement for this new learning adventure. Yet, an uneasy quiet settled over the room. I noticed shifting eyes and squirming in seats. The next day, I gave them an anonymous survey to help them reflect on their emotions about discussing politics. One student commented as she was leaving: “Wow, you could have heard a pin drop in the room.”
The survey revealed that the primary emotion students associate with discussing politics is fear. Students revealed that they feared being judged by others, and they feared adding social strains over perceived political differences. Because of such fear, they largely avoided direct conversations about politics. These students’ behavior confirms national trends. A 2020 Pew survey of over 12,000 Americans revealed that 50% avoid political discussions (Jerkowitz & Mitchell, 2020). While we tend to picture political blow-ups over holiday dinners, a more apt image of how our polarized political culture plays out in private spheres is chilled silence while forks scrape plates. This plays out in school hallways as well, and it resonated through the muted keyboard clicks in my classroom when students took that opening survey.
However, students are charged up about politics, and they are communicating frequently about politics -- but at what they consider a safe distance -- through social media. In a follow-up survey, I discovered that 67% of my students made assumptions about other students' political views based on social media posts, and only one student indicated that she based her perceptions of another student’s political views on a direct conversation. What students are not saying at school, they are posting online; and social media becomes the outlet for their self-suppressed voices. Through online platforms, my students told me that they find people who agree and share their views in large networks of like-minded peers. I challenged them: “Which takes more political courage: to post on social media or to have a direct conversation with a peer?” More squirming ensued. I followed with another anonymous survey. One student shared her frustrations about discussions that take place from viewing others’ social media posts: “I've been frustrated by my friends' harsh reactions and their tendency to vent about other people's political views, regardless of whether I agree with them or not. It makes me feel like, if I were to have a conversation about politics and we were to disagree even a little, they wouldn't consider me a good friend anymore.”
The interplay between adolescent’s desire for acceptance by peers and the dominance of social media in peer relations (Chen and Rohla, 2018) takes on added complexity in a politically-charged but conversationally-silent climate. Students in my class reported feeling pressure to like and repost political messages, and others reported that they interpreted some peers’ silences or non-political posts as insensitive to political issues. Adolescents are trying to form their political principles in a highly charged social media culture (Spies Shapiro and Margolin, 2014). The Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, also exposes how the algorithms that drive social media notifications keep adolescents in a heightened state of alarm, which can also add to emotions about those of diverse political views and propel patterns of polarization (Orlowski, 2020). While reluctant to speak openly, student comments churn over digital airways. What they often forget is that their posts are public, and their peers view their posts. In the absence of direct conversations, the potential for misjudgment inferred from social media behavior is high; perceived sides form amidst this conversational vacuum.
Over time, I came to realize that our class of 19 students seemed to fall into political sides that mirrored the divisions in our own culture. In fact, the more conservative-leaning students sat on the right side of the room, and the more liberal-leaning students sat on the left side of the room -- with a sizable cluster of moderates in between. But I was excited by the fullness of diversity represented in their views -- and the opportunity it represented for dialogue. I tried to give them pep talks: “Do you realize that you are a microcosm of America? If we can communicate about politics better in this class, I have hope for our nation!” They smiled weakly, trying to respond positively to my optimism.
Identifying emotions and zeroing in on what students feared was an important step toward facilitating communication. In an email to me, a student affirmed the value of naming emotions: “tensions fell over the course of the unit as we began to acknowledge human emotions.” What did they fear most? Students pinpointed how fear of social acceptance lay at the heart of their reluctance to engage in political discussions. The student added: “Although our class is very bonded and we are like family, families still have those siblings we find annoying and difficult. We want to be viewed as best we can in the family; we want to be that sibling that everyone gets along with and likes.” Another student added: “It’s hard to be open...it can be hard not to worry about others' opinions of you.”
What our civic culture needs most is to break patterns of avoidance and engage with courage in open political discussions. Schools committed to character education are ideal settings for teaching students how to practice courage in civic conversations. My hope is to share insights on how to promote courageous conversations in ways that help build school communities and which prepare students for civic engagement. I also offer four practical teaching strategies below. And, as I have discovered over the course of this year, that work remains ongoing.
Teaching Dialogue Strategies for Courageous Conversations
As readers of Character.org know, teaching for character forms a shared community value. Yet, schools -- and even schools dedicated to character education -- face challenges in fostering courageous conversations. Schools devoted to character education aim to unify around shared ethical values; and, like our political culture at large, they may avoid direct engagement with controversial political topics. Teaching tolerance for diverse views seems like a means to promote civility, yet not addressing the social fears and issues that inflame political wills can push divisions out of view and remove the mediating lens of adults entrusted with adolescent character formation. Much devolves into the safe distance of peer enclaves and social media outlets.
- Get to the heart of emotions first.
As the narrative above reveals, I have discovered that acknowledging emotions as legitimate first reactions actually makes space for thoughtful reflection (Bohlin and Kris, 2018). This first step allows us to teach dialogue strategies to help form adolescents in principles for civic virtue and provides them with the practical habits that can contribute to courage (Peterson and Seligman, 2004; Arthur et. al., 2016) for political conversations. The day after my students filled out that pre-unit survey, I broadly acknowledged their fears, and the students opened up and gradually settled through the process of reflecting on and discussing their fears.
- Provide models to inspire.
Following the naming of emotions, students viewed the TED talk “How our Friendship Survives our Opposing Politics” (Quattromani and Arledge, 2017), which provided a concrete model of two friends who worked through their polarized political views to strengthen their friendship through courageous conversations. This video primed the students to visualize how to act courageously despite fear, and their excitement surged as they left class that day.
- Collaborate on discussion norms.
The next day, the students engaged in discussions with smaller groups to develop class norms to make them feel safer to engage in political dialogue, and they made lists on giant post-it notes spaced throughout the room. I posed the question: What principles will facilitate discussions that promote community flourishing? Each small group reported, and we culled from these ideas to create a list of classroom norms. They agreed on the following principles, which we posted in the classroom:
- Disagree with ideas, not people (respect people – no personal attacks).
- Don’t put people in a box or make assumptions.
- Show the same respect inside and outside the classroom.
- Use effective listening, and ask questions to understand, not to persuade.
- Resolve tensions as quickly as possible.
- Assume good intentions and look for common ground.
- Don’t invalidate or dismiss others’ opinions or views.
- Be calm and settle your emotions.
- Don’t interrupt or talk over anyone else.
- Be patient – let everyone voice their thoughts and opinions before moving on.
- Be aware of your body language.
- Be self aware and hold yourself accountable.
As Election Day drew closer, I pulled out the list of class norms and posed the question: “So, how are we doing with our classroom norms outside of class?” I read each norm and paused for reflection. The mood was much lighter, and students laughed openly. One girl reported: “To tell you the truth, I’d give us a D+ at best.” Chuckles and nods followed. While her assessment was not encouraging, the more open and brightened tone of the class gave me hope that we had shifted from dread and avoidance to a climate of improved trust.
- Learn Dialogue Strategies
Students also read and discussed Arthur C. Brooks’ 2019 book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from Our Culture of Contempt, as the principal text to learn dialogue strategies, both the community-building principles behind these strategies and practical techniques to enhance consensus-building through conversation. Brooks encourages Americans to seek out those with diverse views and to engage in discussions with “love and respect,” guided by such dialogue strategies as:
- Tell personal stories to increase social bonding.
- Welcome diverse perspectives by showing curiosity for others’ views through asking questions aimed to understand.
- Understand Moral Foundations Theory and the role of compassion and fairness to find common ground in political conversations.
- “Practice warm-heartedness” amidst conflicts to keep the goal of relationship-building above ideology in such conversations.
Reading this book led to a marked increase in student hopefulness that the strategies Brooks offered could help them develop more courage for political conversations. Even after reading the introduction to Love your Enemies, students reported higher levels of hope (50.3%) and courage (12.5%) about having political conversations.
Our civics unit ended on Election Day 2020, and a post-unit survey revealed that 100% of my students reported growth in dialogue skills and 76.5% reported increased courage for political conversations. I ended the unit with such a high. Job well done. File that unit away, and move onto the research papers.
Epilogue & After-thoughts
But, two months later, during the week I had devoted to research paper revisions, we were all glued to television screens watching an insurrection storm and desecrate the Capitol. We felt shock, indignation, and fear for the upcoming inauguration. I also learned through the student grapevine that emotions and tensions were soaring among pockets of peers over reactions to social media posts. At first, I felt frustrated and thought: What -- did they learn nothing? Do we go back to step one with each new crisis? But, eventually, I settled my own emotions and reminded myself: These are young kids. Asking them to become reasonable agents of civic dialogue is an awful lot to ask -- especially when adults in America are so publically not living up to this standard. I gathered the class over Zoom two days after the events at the Capitol, to create a safe place to share emotions and perspectives and to facilitate direct communication among peers rather than have them only fragment through social media outlets. After that Zoom session, students expressed gratitude that I facilitated this opportunity to break down perceived divides. They made an action plan too: to use the Bipartisan student club as a venue for mediated dialogue, and I offered my help. Additionally, after President Biden’s inauguration, three student leaders, two from my AP Lang class, offered a school-wide opportunity to view and discuss Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.”
It has become clear to me that empowering student courage for such conversations, during the fragile years of adolescence, requires ongoing adult support. The theme of courageous conversations continues to reverberate throughout the student body. A recent student newspaper article about President Biden’s inauguration included this comment by the writer: “courageous conversations teaches us how to have disagreements peacefully. One political conversation can’t break the relationship. Well, the same goes with our community and with our nation. Mrs. Whitlock told us: ‘Remember how much you love them.’ Getting angry is natural— but holding onto hatred is toxic. Remember that, though we are individuals with differing beliefs, we are a nation of people who must act with love. How do our courageous conversations mend our current broken bridges? By listening. By having empathy.” A student who took this class last year recently shared in an email: “The AP Lang experience has been one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had at Montrose. AP Lang inspired in me a curiosity to discuss topics I had beforehand felt uncomfortable confronting, both in myself and with others.” While our courageous conversations initiatives have inspired students, challenges remain. As one student told me recently: “You covered everything we needed to know about how to have a respectful conversation, and it’s us as a class that needs to follow through with that. We did gain some courage. Now that we completed this unit, I’m not afraid to share my political beliefs, but I will most likely not go up to an individual and start a conversation.”
Ultimately, I learned that this work of building a more civil civic culture remains ongoing; and, like so much work in character education, short-term measures are insufficient to assess impact. The seeds are planted, and I have added fertilizer at intervals when crises erupt. Our school has folded in layers of support to enhance political conversations, such as forums to promote respectful dialogue and a student government initiative -- many from my class -- posting hand-made posters throughout the school that echo our class norms. But, while schools of character can create nurturing environments to help civic culture flourish, the larger political culture continues to rage outside and through digital screens. Ultimately, we have to remember that adolescents are young shoots, who, though nurtured by our efforts, are affected by countless other environmental factors (and our political climate is indeed in a warming pattern). Our students need time to grow, and they need the help of teachers to support them with attentive care and abundant patience.
Arthur, J., Kristján, K., Tom, H., Wouter, S., & Daniel, W. (2016). Teaching Character and Virtue in Schools, Taylor & Francis Group [ProQuest E-Book Central]. Taylor & Francis Group. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=4595192.
Bohlin, K., & Kris, D. F. (2018, October 4). What it Means to Build a Life Compass. Montrose
School (LifeCompass Institute Blog). Retrieved December 6, 2020, from
Brooks, A. C. (2019). Love your Enemies: How Decent People can save American from the Culture of Contempt. HarperCollins.
Chen, M. Keith and Rohla, Ryne (1 June 2018), The Effect of Partisanship and Political Advertising on Close Family Ties. Science Magazine, 360(6392), 1020-1024.
Jerkowitz, Mark and Mitchell, Amy (February 5, 2020). A sore subject: Almost half of Americans have stopped talking politics with someone. Pew Research Center. https://www.journalism.org/2020/02/05/a-sore-subject-almost-half-of-americans-have-stopped-talking-politics-with-someone
Orlowski, J. (Director). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Film]. Netflix.
Quattromani, Caitlin and Arledge, Lauren (2017), How our Friendship Survives our Opposing Politics [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qty0NjF3pdQ.
Peterson, C, & Seligman, MEP 2004, Character Strengths and Virtues : A Handbook and Classification, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, Cary. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [21 November 2020].
Spies Shapiro, Lauren A. and Margolin, Gayla (March 2014), Growing up Wired: Social Networking Sites and Adolescent Psychosocial Development. Clinical Family Child Psychology Review 17(1), 1-18.