Guest post by Danielle Fowler
Building on their commitment to engage students in activities that enable them to "talk across the aisle" as part of the Caring Schools #CommonGood campaign, St. Luke’s School has launched the “Curious Conversations” series. We connected with Elizabeth Perry, Head of the Upper School, to learn more about their program and her advice for other schools.
What are "Curious Conversations"?
Curious Conversations are student-led group discussions about issues of difference. We cancel a class and hold the gatherings during the school day, with the entire Upper School (325 students in grades 9–12 plus 50 teachers) participating. So far, our topics have been religion and religious stereotypes; race and gender roles as portrayed in the play Defamation; how media influences our ideas of what is "normal," especially around gender; stigmas around mental illness; and preventing violence and self-harm.
Why did you start Curious Conversations?
St. Luke's is a very "purple" school politically, with a real mix of right and left. We started these groups so that we could practice the skills of listening with a curious ear (thus, curious conversations) rather than an evaluative or judgmental ear. We all need to practice listening to understand the other person, asking questions to deepen our understanding rather than trying to trap the other person or "win" a discussion.
Can you tell us more about how the program is run and administered?
Our Center for Leadership provides the training for the student facilitators. We have over 40 students, who are all volunteers in grades 10-12. There are no prerequisites to be a facilitator—no nomination, no essay, no GPA requirement—just a genuine interest in learning how to lead a group. The teachers are participants in the conversations, meaning that if the activity in the group says "pair up with someone you don't know well," the teacher would try to find a student they don't teach and do the activity as a true participant.
In the beginning the staff and I chose the topics together. That's how we picked the first three (religion, race/gender, and media/gender). Then we asked the student facilitators what they thought we needed to talk about, and they proposed stigmas around mental illness. The final conversation emerged from a group of 9th graders who had done a project-based learning experience in January around gun violence prevention and had asked me if they could invite the group Sandy Hook Promise to St. Luke's. I was so happy when they said, "And could we have Curious Conversation groups meet afterward?" It showed me how this program is finding traction among students and gradually becoming part of our culture.
What are the key takeaways so far?
The quality of the conversations depends on the effectiveness of the student facilitators. We are hearing from groups that are extremely well run, where students and teachers are able to be fully present, be vulnerable, listen deeply, and learn. We are also hearing from groups that have never really clicked. We know we will need to create more ways of giving feedback to the student facilitators and adding additional training for those that need more support.
One thing we haven't done yet is talk explicitly about politics in the sense of elections and elected leaders. I would like to see us devote one or more Curious Conversations to that topic next year.
How are you evaluating your program?
At the end of this month, we will be doing a pair of surveys, one of students and one of teachers, to gather feedback about the whole Curious Coversations experience. We are looking to improve the program for next year.
What advice would you offer to schools also attempting to implement a talking across the aisle initiative?
For us, as a very "purple" school, it has been good not to start with topics that are explicitly about politics. Mind you, talking about religion, race, gender, media, stereotypes, stigmas, and violence are all political in some way, but they are not Republican/Democrat. I think now that we have built some foundation in talking about these issues of identity, we are well positioned to tackle party politics as another layer of identity next year.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with other schools?
I started this after watching white supremacists march on Charlottesville last summer. I realized that we were not ready as a school to process an event like that. We weren't in school yet, but if (when?) another event like Charlottesville were to occur, I wanted to know we had a process and a format for getting together to have difficult conversations in a space where norms are established and we know how to listen.
If educators are interested in implementing a similar initiative in their school, Elizabeth Perry has generously offered to be a resource. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.