Building Community Through Tough Conversations

We need to invite conversation into our classrooms, and sometimes that means having controversial conversations. Provocative topics will get anyone talking–we’ve all seen evidence of this in our Facebook feeds–but teens, especially, need to flex their opinion muscles often.

Like any other developmental milestone, kids need a safe place to practice and fail at these skills before they master them. Talk, argument, the subtle art of making claims, supporting them with evidence, and persuading listeners with ethos, pathos, and logos, are developmental milestones. As such, it is our job as educators to provide the safe space needed for that practice.

But as we know, you can’t just leap into the tough conversations a few weeks into the school year–you have to build community, and trust, and a sense of values first.


I happen to think that having those tough conversations is the way to build community.

We have to read, think, and write what matters in classrooms. So last Friday, my preservice teachers and I unpacked a tough topic: institutional racism in education. We didn’t just leap in and invite uninformed debate–instead, we did lots of work before our conversation to help us navigate the waters we were about to enter.

First, we read.  Our assigned reading for the week was Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” A women’s studies scholar, McIntosh coined the term “privilege” in the late 80s, when this article was published. It’s a thoughtful read, strengthened by its narrative of McIntosh’s discovery about her previously-unseen privilege.

We drafted our thinking in pairs. After reading, students wrote one-pagers about their thinking and submitted them to our class Google Drive. Each student has a critical friend this semester, so they receive feedback on their thinking from both me and a peer. These low-stakes spaces for thinking help students get their initial reactions down on paper

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We talked. To open our conversation, I asked students to speak generally about what surprised or interested them about McIntosh’s writing. Many students volunteered ways in which they agreed with McIntosh, but a brave few spoke about how they weren’t so sure about her claims. One student even prefaced his comments with, “I feel like kind of a douchebag for even thinking this, but I’m going to say it.” I thanked him for his willingness to be honest, and that opened the floodgates for other students to share more readily.

We extended and re-drafted our thinking. After several minutes of back-and-forth, I presented students with a variety of other points of view on this same topic in the form of quotes about institutional racism and white privilege. I asked students to read and respond to one quote anonymously via Post-its.


They did this, then passed their Post-it laden quote to the next table, who read both the quotes and comments and added their thinking.


We continued in this vein, then talked in small groups about what the post-its said, negotiating agreement or disagreement with each writer, then conversing about the ways our own opinions had evolved.

We left the conversation unfinished. Because how can you really ever arrive at a definitive understanding of any topic so complex? Our thinking must keep evolving. I have several next steps in mind.

I’m going to send my kids Peggy McIntosh’s fantastic TED Talk on how studying privilege systems strengthens compassion. They’ll respond to their critical friend’s comments. In their notebooks, they’ll write a bit more about how they see evidence of institutional racism in the schools in which they observe. Next class, we’ll discuss ways to enact actionable change in classrooms, using this topic as a starting point for something we may want to reform in education.

In just our third class meeting, our conversation was a good start to the kinds of deep thinking and grappling with issues I want students doing in the course of our two years of seminars together. By offering plenty of opportunities to draft and revise thinking in small-group and low-stakes ways, students got comfortable enough with their thinking to share it with the class thoughtfully and respectfully.

We’ll continue to dialogue about this topic and other difficult ones, revising our thinking through the lenses of our learning and experiences, and discuss why discussing these topics matters. In just this one class meeting, my students and I learned more about one another than we had in our previous weeks of just writing and talking about safer topics. Through reasonable risk-taking, vulnerability, and honesty, we grew not only as individual thinkers and teachers, but as a community of reflective practitioners as well.

How do you help your students have controversial conversations? Please share in the comments!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, tortilla chips (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.


One thought on “Building Community Through Tough Conversations

  1. […] written about the value of talk before, but I’m coming to believe that there is more value in conversation. The exchange of ideas is much more valuable than the simple act of articulating one’s own, […]


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