Learning to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue can be challenging, but there's nothing more important or rewarding for our community. Honest conversations about difficult topics have been proven to empower both children and adults in developing an anti-bias perspective of the world, and Wellington’s commitment to drive real change in addressing systems of oppression begins with courageous conversations at school and home.
School counselor Craig Jones and upper school English teacher Chris Robbins P ’17 ’22 first introduced Glenn Singleton’s award-winning Courageous Conversations framework in the upper school after sharing a moment of reflection on how best to navigate potentially controversial topics related to race. Working together, Jones and Robbins began implementing classroom discourse protocols for effectively engaging, sustaining, and deepening interracial dialogue between students and faculty.
In a recent webinar for the community, Jones and Robbins outlined the important work they have been doing to stretch, not stress, students outside of their comfort zones. They explained the difference between safe spaces and brave spaces, with the latter encouraging participants to be brave in exploring content that maximizes learning and understanding, and how differing views can be honored with a group commitment to understanding and working cooperatively toward common solutions.
“This is about establishing meaningful dialogue, versus debate,” Jones said. Similar to building muscle, he explained, by increasing our tolerance for discomfort, we increase our ability to address challenges. Jones and Robbins also encouraged parents to practice some of the same techniques at home, beginning with the simple question, “what do you think about…”
For the entire Courageous Conversations webinar, click here.
The same courageous conversations structure can be used to discuss a variety of topics, with the skills and techniques taught and strengthened in age-appropriate ways. In middle school advisory, for instance, students were introduced to the four key ground rules to civil discourse: stay engaged, speak your truth, embrace discomfort, and expect and accept non-closure. In zoom-rooms hosted by staffulty facilitators, students carried on respectful and substantive conversations about the question we had posed, explained Greg Davis, middle school English teacher. “At times, facilitators paused conversations in order to reflect on various student statements,” he shared. “These reflections combined with student commentary made it possible for us to observe in real time how people might approach the same question in different ways.”
Next up, middle schoolers will use the framework to discuss a low-stakes topic, building their muscles for long term growth. “We are hopeful that this sort of exercise will promote healthy dialogue and an openness to different perspectives at a time when such things cannot be taken for granted,” Davis said.
For lower school, the focus is on honoring and respecting others’ experiences and finding connection with one another, according to Danielle Gibbs P ’31 ’35, lower school counselor. In affinity groups for students of color in 1st-4th grade, Gibbs and lower school teacher Yolanda Johnson provide a safe space for sharing ideas and concerns. “There’s a lot of community building, learning about different cultures, and connecting and growing in our own identities,” Gibbs said.
Many of the topics discussed in the affinity group can be beneficial to all students, according to Gibbs, so she is using Pollyanna, a racial literacy curriculum, in guidance classes this year.
Lower schoolers are also engaging in their own form of civil discourse through their work on the 3rd grade play. Based on the children’s book “The President of the Jungle,” the story revolves around a mock election between King Lion, Miss Monkey, Gloria Giraffe, and Zack Zebra. Coverage of the candidates is provided by Jungle TV, with each animal and their supporters making the case for how they will make the jungle a better place if elected. King Lion is a great protector. Miss Monkey is energetic, enthusiastic, and quick in all emergencies. Gloria Giraffe is the gentle giant offering peace and calm. Zack Zebra wants all animals to respect the jungle because “a balanced environment is crucial to a balanced life.”
After each animal makes the case for why they should be elected, the audience is invited to cast their ballot. “Voting is important,” Zack Zebra said. “ It is your way to show what you want to happen in our jungle. Voters make a difference.”