Guest post by Danielle Fowler
Inspired by the Caring Schools #CommonGood campaign’s call to engage students in activities that enable them to "talk across the aisle," Middlesex School has incorporated a new class for freshmen students titled "Dialogues Across Differences."
According to Rob Munro, Director of Middlesex School’s Global Studies initiative, this new course is an opportunity to address the notion that "many schools ask their students to be more empathetic, and we were among those schools; however, unless we actively teach how to be empathetic as a class, during the school day, we knew it would be difficult for students to truly grasp how to have difficult, but empathetic interactions." We asked Rob to tell us more about the course and share his advice for other schools.
What is "Dialogues Across Differences"?
Dialogues Across Differences aims to teach students how to have difficult conversations about world topics using compassionate, analytical, and nonjudgmental language. Like many independent schools, we want our students to engage in the difficult conversations and problems that are prevalent throughout the news and the social media with which they interact.
Why did Middlesex start the course?
Much of the news we and students consume today spurs divisive, sometimes hostile, discourse. Social media encourages quick, shoot-from-the-hip tweets, posts, or stories. This method of communication is effective but it advocates sensationalization and often polarizing language, which can lead to toxic communities. We wanted to combat this style of communication and promote empathy as an intellectual tool necessary for the more globalized colleges and workforce which our students will eventually join.
Can you tell us more about how the course is run and administered?
All new students take this course in the third quarter of their first year. The course meets for six weeks and meets once a week. In order to make space for this in the curriculum, we agreed to give students neither homework nor assessments in this course. Instead, students come to each class with their textbook (which we published and which the students purchase), complete a reading or watch a short video, answer questions from their textbook in groups, and then come back for a large-group discussion, and, if time permits, a role-play exercise. Each week ends with a recap of the skill learned that week.
What are the key takeaways so far?
After completing their pre- and post-initiative surveys, one theme was consistent: Many students quickly figured out they could anticipate what answer (or range of answers) teachers were looking for. Students’ exit surveys reflected this:
"Many of the concepts taught are things that seem like common sense."
"Although I am far from perfect, I feel engaging in difficult conversation has never been an issue for me. What to say and how to respond to diversity amongst race and religion has just been common sense, and when presented I know how to respectfully ask questions and make comments. In my opinion, this course was just a reminder of all the issues there are today and did nothing to fix them."
Some students felt moved to offer watered-down responses to expedite parts of the discussion sections. After reflecting with my colleagues, I realized this might not be a bad thing at all. If students understand what reactions, tone, or language lead to empathetic dialogue, that strikes me as a good thing. But now I want to encourage students to think through why those responses are the most appropriate.
Many of the responses were generally positive. A few are reflected below:
"Yes, now I am more aware of what is okay to say and what isn't, and how I should go about saying it to make the person feel comfortable and make me seem approachable."
"I feel better prepared to participate in difficult conversations while being able to listen, empathize, and ask questions."
"I think that this class has helped me improve my skills at least a little, and that if I am ever in an uncomfortable situation again, I will know what to do."
How are you evaluating your program?
We ask that students complete two surveys—an entry and exit survey—as part of the course. We hope to synthesize the data from our surveys after having taught the course for a generation of students (3-4 years). Since these students took this course as freshmen we are also planning on asking them to complete another survey, as part of their senior leadership programming that asks them how/if they have engaged in difficult and empathetic dialogues after having taken the course and how receptive they currently are to utilizing the skills taught during the course. We will receive complete data from the first class who took the course in June 2020.
What advice would you offer to schools also attempting to implement a "talking across the aisle" initiative?
Make sure any initiative undertaken is consistent with the mission and values of the school. Given the globally diverse nature of our students and the values they hold, talking across the aisle can become very political quickly. To neutralize that and given academic and institutional weight to the course, it is important that the philosophy of the initiative coincide with the community’s shared values. We also believed it was important to teach this as an academic offering. This added intellectual weight to the course and allowed students to take it more seriously.
If educators are interested in implementing a similar initiative in their school, Robert Munro has generously offered to be a resource. He can be contacted at email@example.com.