Giving Space for Student Voices, Questions, and Dialogue

Posted by Mary Hendra on August 15, 2017

This week, many schools in the Southern California area are welcoming students back for the school year. So, the news from Charlottesville this weekend, the imagery and violence which students may have seen, will likely be weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of educators. It is weighing on our hearts and minds as well.

What happens when you give space over to questions and dialogue? How do you make sure that space is constructive for learning, and one in which multiple perspectives can be heard and understood?

Roger Brooks shared a message to all Facing History educators earlier this week, and Liz Vogel noted the context of this time in her “Back to School” messageby video.

Through this blog post and others in the next week, we want to give space to educators to share how they are entering into the school year in a way which establishes the environment for constructive, challenging conversations. These conversations are vital for our students, for our school communities, for our national community, and for ourselves as individuals. So throughout, if you have suggestions or questions to offer, please share your comments below.

It can seem frightening to turn space over to students. And it’s true – there is risk in just opening class with empty space when we don’t have the tools and language to craft a space that will allow learning. Here are a few things to think about as you start: 

  1. Start with yourself. How is your experience informing or shaping your understanding of the situation? What emotions are you grappling with as you consider this latest news? Where are you getting information about the event and what questions do you still have? Have you been able to process the event for yourself?
  2. Recognize that students may be at varying degrees of understanding. Give students the chance to ask questions. For those who have some knowledge, encourage them to identify where they are getting that information, and what information is missing which they would like to learn.
  3. Thinking about the students, grade level, and content you teach, what tools will your students need to engage in this conversation? At some grade levels, students may need help with sentence starters or conversation aids which can help them both feel comfortable sharing their own thoughts and hear others. For others, a structured protocol such as “Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn” might build the skills of dialogue which would allow learning from different perspectives. All students may benefit from a contracting strategy so that they are part of creating the constructive space together and have some guidelines for civil dialogue.
  4. Give multiple ways for students to respond and to process. A personal journal (for writing or drawing) can be a helpful way for students to think about their own experiences with hatred or violence. Instead of launching right into discussion, you could try using Big Paper with a question such as Roger posed: How does our experience and memory of the past affect our choices and beliefs in the present? 
  5. Remember that this is not your every-day curriculum.  It can be comforting to put on one's teacher's hat or use teaching strategies as we would with any reading or concept. But this isn’t just another lesson for many of our students and colleagues. This is about lives lost. This is about palpable fear. This is about long-lasting prejudices and hatred which have had devastating effects throughout US History. Giving space in the right way allows each student voice to be heard as they express what and how they learn about critical events such as what happened this weekend.
  6. When possible, share models of positive action as well. At times of violence, we tend to stop as a nation and turn our attention to a single instance. But these events are not anomalies. They are not the only significant issues. More often, they reflect deeper historical and ideological roots. To develop the perseverance needed to understand and address them more completely, our students need to see that they are not alone. Positive, non-violent change often receives much less visibility than violence, but they, too, are important for us to learn from.

Students – and colleagues – learn at least as much from what we do as from what we say. What message do we send when we stop class to acknowledge current events? What message do we send when we don’t talk about these things?

Let’s show our students that their voices matter – that they matter – in times like these and throughout the year.


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Topics: Classrooms, Back-To-School, Events

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This blog helps Southern California teachers connect directly with each other, share ideas, and learn about new resources and opportunities for those interested in or already implementing Facing History.

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