Teaching with Civil Discourse

Introduction

Civil discourse occurs when people participate in a discussion on highly debated issues intended to promote greater understanding. People engaging in civil discourse use respectful dialogue and effective argumentation skills while giving their opinion on a topic. Civil discourse is an integral part of democratic societies. Nowadays, discourse about political, economic, and social issues happen online rather than in a courtroom or face to face, and they tend to be uncivil. Of course, when arguing in-person, people also often succumb to their emotions when arguing about a topic they are passionate about, leading to raised voices, unkind words, and hurt feelings. With civil discourse, all of these negative outcomes are avoided. By teaching with civil discourse, students will learn how to most effectively communicate with those whose opinions differ from their own. With these new skills, students will ultimately become better and more informed citizens who can contribute to a more peaceful society in the future.

Resources

There are plenty of online resources that provide details and instructions about teaching with civil discourse in the classroom. When engaging in civil discourse, it is important for students to share opinions based on factual information. Therefore, educators may want to take a look at U4SC’s topic resources on Teaching about Fake News and Teaching About Media Literacy!

Lesson Plans

  1. Civil Discourse in the Classroom: Learning for Justice published Civil Discourse in the Classroom to introduce educators to basic tools for teaching civil discourse. This publication is divided into four different chapters: Civil Discourse In The Classroom And Beyond, Building Blocks For Civil Discourse, Talk It Over, and Teaching Controversy. With the lessons in this curriculum, students will learn how to turn their unfounded opinions into reasoned arguments and challenge an opposing argument both effectively and civilly. For educators who are looking for activities to introduce their students to the concept of civil discourse and aid them in creating well-formed arguments, this publication will be very helpful! 
  1. Fostering Civil Discourse – How Do We Talk About Issues That Matter?: Facing History & Ourselves has created a guide to help teachers prepare their students to engage in civil discourse. The guide walks teachers through how to foster civil discourse by starting with themselves and examining how their beliefs affect the way they teach and interact with students, building community and trust by prioritizing relationships and co-creating community norms, facilitating reflective conversations (individual, small-group, and full-class), and debriefing/reflecting after the conversation. All teachers need to do to access this guide is to create a free account with Facing History & Ourselves and download the PDF!
  2. Setting Classroom Expectations for Trust, Tolerance, and Civil Discourse: The Bill of Rights Institute has put together a 20-minute activity focused on setting classroom expectations for trust, tolerance, and civil discourse. In this activity, students will create classroom expectations and norms to create a safe and trusting environment and reflect and discuss the events that occurred in Charlottesville in August 2017 in order to model civil discourse around difficult societal issues.
  3. We Are Civil Communicators: Common Sense Education provides a lesson plan on how we can communicate with civility online. This lesson will help students learn about civil discourse and why it can be challenging on the internet, analyze resources to identify the causes and effects of uncivil discourse online, and learn strategies for civil discourse and apply them to a scenario. To access this lesson plan, teachers should create a free account with Common Sense Education. For educators who want to focus on online civil discourse with students, this lesson is perfect!
  4. Talking Across Divides – 10 Ways to Encourage Civil Classroom Conversation On Difficult Issues: The New York Times has published an article discussing 10 ways to encourage civil classroom conversation on difficult issues. Some of these ideas include creating classroom rules and structures that support respectful and generative discussion, taking the ‘Speak Up for Civility’ pledge from Teaching tolerance, reading and discussing articles that explore the problem of a divided America, practicing empathy, and backing up statements with evidence/sources. Each of these ideas is accompanied by an explanation and resources teachers can use in their lessons!
  5. Setting Ground Rules – Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions: The U.S. Courts provide a resource for setting ground rules for civil discourse in the classroom. The first activity has students put an X next to the attitudes and actions that are most important for them when they are having a conversation with someone who has a different opinion than them. There is also an example of student-developed civility rules and additional activities for teachers to download, including a simulation of a federal court legal proceeding. Educators who want their students to set some ground rules for civil discourse in the classroom and then participate in an activity where they practice civil discourse in a mock trial should take a look at this resource!

Articles

  1. 3 Steps to Civil Discourse in the Classroom: The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) provides an article discussing the 3 steps to civil discourse in the classroom. This article talks about how teachers should begin with themselves, control and monitor the climate of their classrooms, and start small and build as skills develop by watching civil debates, silent/private journaling, taking public positions, open debating, and lastly teaching argumentation and logical/rhetorical fallacies. There is also advice on managing the emotional temperature in the classroom because without civility, there is no civil discourse!
  2. Students Learn to Put the ‘Civil’ in Civil Discourse: Education Week provides an article on students learning civil-discourse skills. The article first discusses how two classrooms in the Rocky Mountains are working on bringing civil discourse to the classroom. In doing so, students have had deliberations on the topics of controversial issues, including whether Congress should outlaw assault weapons or whether the United States should require its citizens to vote. Through these deliberations, students have learned to see both sides of an argument. The article goes to explain how other educators have instilled civil-discourse habits into their classrooms and the importance of civil discourse to students’ civic engagement.
  3. Teaching Civil Discourse More Important Now Than Ever: K-12 Dive offers a brief overview and some insight on the importance of teaching students about civil discourse. The piece also recommends that teachers read edutopia’s Teaching Kids to Argue—Respectfully for further information on how to teach students about controversial topics, build students’ argumentation skills, and ultimately engage them in civil discourse.
  4. Why is Civil Discourse Important?: The Charles Koch Institute provides an article on why civil discourse is important. The piece explains how civic discourse aims to protect people living peacefully together in society. Civil discourse allows us to preserve our relationships despite differences in opinion, work productively with people we disagree with, etc. For educators who want to emphasize to students the role of civil discourse in democratic society, this article will be helpful!
  5. Teaching Students to Disagree Productively: edutopia offers an article on teaching students to disagree productively. The article lays out four strategies all teachers, even those who teach students of younger ages, can use to facilitate disagreement in the classroom: encourage students to listen without responding, invite students to share another person’s point of view, have students debate against instinct, and guide students to seek common ground. For educators who want to teach their young students with civil discourse, this article is a great place to start! 

Informational Sites

  1. What is Civil Discourse: American University offers a bit of information on what civil discourse is and isn’t.

Conclusion

Teaching with civil discourse has many benefits, especially because it is very applicable to real world situations students may find themselves in. Speaking with people who agree with us is easy, but it is harder to have civil conversations with those we disagree with! Students who engage in civil discourse are also more likely to engage civically in the future by voting, having political conversations, etc. However, educators may face challenges when integrating civil discourse into their curriculum. Some young people are afraid of public speaking and may be hesitant to share their opinions about controversial topics in front of their peers. Therefore, educators may want to have one-on-one conversations with students or administer a survey where they can share their hesitations around this new practice.

Additional Resources

  1. Civil Discourse and Petitioning: The Bill of Rights Institute provides information on civil discourse and petitioning. The article breaks down the rights granted in the second half of the First Amendment, the concept of civility and toleration, civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement, and the difference between the Founders’ understanding of petition and today’s.
  2. Difficult Conversations – Strategies for Civil Discourse: The Sacramento State Center for Teaching and Learning has created a guide that includes strategies for civil discourse when having difficult conversations in the classroom. There are strategies for planning ahead, facilitating with tools, and managing a crisis. In addition, there are resources and references for each one of these strategies.

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