It is a difficult time to be an educator. Aside from the massive disruptions and stress of a pandemic lasting more than two years, even as it appears to be winding down, teachers, school boards, and librarians are at the dead center of divisive conflicts over how—and if—students should encounter issues of racism, sexuality, and the dark side of American history in their schools. As has happened in the past, efforts to ban or remove books from school are a manifestation of this conflict.
In recent weeks, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has directed schools to remove all books with “pornography or obscene content.” Texas state Rep. Matt Krause has demanded school libraries account for their holdings related to race, gender, and sexuality—prompting some teachers to take titles from classroom shelves out of fear of reprisal. Last month, in one Tennessee district, Maus was eliminated from a junior high school reading list, driving the book to a top-seller position on Amazon. In a Washington state district, the school board is having to defend making To Kill a Mockingbird optional rather than required reading because of concerns over racist language and the book’s portrayal of a “white savior complex.”
Reaction to these moves have been largely predictable. Progressives decry them as censorship designed to muzzle minority authors and perspectives. Conservatives call for parents’ rights when it comes to what they think children are exposed to in public schools. This is just a new spin on old conversations we’ve been having in this country since at least the 1850s with the publication of The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is so entrenched that most people could argue either of its well-worn sides.
But it’s the wrong conversation, especially as it sets teachers up to fail. In talking about lists of books, we’re missing the real questions: What do we value about education? How can we equip teachers, administrators, school boards, and librarians to support those values in the work that they do?
Productive civic and classroom conversations about our deepest values may seem naive in this deeply polarized moment. But as someone who has spent more than 20 years teaching about religion to college students, I have seen the possibility and power of conversations that move from stuck talking points that reinforce entrenched positions to new exchanges that invite deep reflection and curiosity about others’ experiences.
I don’t expect my students to agree when they talk about guns or sexuality or immigration, all of which are deeply entangled with religious realities. Instead, I facilitate these conversations in thoughtful ways that focus on curiosity, structured speaking and listening, and carefully crafted questions rooted in core values, experiences, hopes, and hesitations. This approach allows students to encounter course materials and each other with the kinds of complexity and empathy that the usual, entrenched conversations preclude.
Through a research project examining the use of dialogue in college classrooms to support intellectual humility and conviction, fellow scholars and I have found that students who experience properly structured dialogue in classrooms are more willing to speak in class. There is comfort around classmates: Students feel like they belong, they are more resilient when listening to something that goes against a deeply held belief or worldview,they become more aware of the origins of their own beliefs, and they learn core content better. As one student put it, “Dialogue can be civil, understanding, and productive.”
It can, but only if we make this kind of conversation possible, even normalized, in school board meetings, classrooms, and other educational spaces. As my colleagues in conflict resolution have known for a long time—and as I have learned when integrating these skills into my own pedagogy—this means several changes to our usual operating procedures.
First, and as teachers already know, it means preparation aimed at purpose. What kind of conversation are we trying to have, and what can we do to invite what is helpful and prevent what is not? In classrooms, teachers can make time for regular check-ins that allow students to connect across favorite words, music, or shared feelings.
In states that have passed laws constraining direct discussion of topics such as race or sexuality, teachers can instead root discussion around values. For instance, teachers might approach issues like race or inclusion by asking students about a time they felt like they belonged or a time when they were misrepresented. What do students want other people to know about those experiences? How might their stories relate to course materials? This approach allows students to consider bigger issues in new ways that aren’t necessarily represented in contested curricula but which can clarify their own positions in those public debates.
Even in large school board meetings, board members can invite attendees to share their names and one ordinary thing that has recently brought them joy before business starts. Then, rather than start with a question that goes straight to a contentious issue—Should this book be allowed? Can teachers mention race?—school boards can structure a conversation that would move away from yes or no talking points and move instead to experiences, values, hopes, and hesitations.
Building trust through connection is a vital first step. Meaningful conversations that come at issues away from stuck talking points and policy create space for conversations about what really matters. They go best when there are clear agreements in place about listening to understand and speaking to be understood rather than to persuade. Speaking from personal experience, sharing airtime, and (where appropriate) stipulating confidentiality are also helpful conditions. Timed speaking allows for more voices in the room. In the case of classrooms, encouraging students’ curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and conviction can give them the vocabulary and intellectual framework to lean into their best impulses.
Once a culture of honest and trusting exchange is established in the context of shared purpose, productive conversations about contentious issues become possible and, as students in our study reported, even enjoyable. Having the skills to back up from immediate policy debates or contested issues and into conversations about what people in the room really care about allows us to think about who we are and what we want to be, together. Our educators, and our communities, need the skills to create this culture, now more than ever.