Ensuring that My Students Have a Safe and Uncomfortable Place to Think

Paul Wright

Paul Wright teaches 9th grade Government/Economics and 11th grade Interdisciplinary American Studies (Viewpoints on Modern America) at Radnor High School in Wayne, PA. He began his career at Mable G. Holmes Middle School in Elizabeth, NJ. He has mentored student teachers, and actively collaborates with his colleagues at Radnor. He was a 2011 Finalist for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. He is also a co-owner of JumpStart Main Line College Essay Camps. When he isn’t in the classroom, you can probably find him behind a book, on his bike, or losing another argument to one of his three teenagers.

When a conclusion agrees with our politics, we are much more likely to accept the result, blind to how bias has affected a study’s design and framing.

— Annie Duke’s Weekly Newsletter, V. 1, #34

It hasn’t been hard teaching History or Government since 1993. Actually, let me rephrase that—there has been plenty to teach in History or Government since 1993. I generally assume that kids come to my classroom with little knowledge on a topic, or that the knowledge they have is…incomplete.

Managing assumptions

Please don’t hear that as thinking ill of them—it is actually designed as a check on my own assumptions. Case in point: I teach 11th grade Interdisciplinary Honors American Studies with my teaching partner Carl Rosin at Radnor High School. Our month-long unit on the 1920s, the crash of 1929, and the financial meltdown of 2008 is the product of one question, many years ago, from a talented kid (whom I believe is now a doctor). The question was this: “What’s a stock?”

Back to my assumptions: if George—a product of Honors classes in a strong school system—didn’t know what a stock was, what have I been assuming about all my kids and what they bring to class? That question now guides my practice as I search for topics, as I plan units, and as I carry them out on a day to day basis.

In more recent years, that question has grown to include the habits and behaviors of kids as well as content.

One of those sets of behaviors is how teachers and kids engage WITH…curious… topics SAFELY.

A safe place to think

In the early 2000s, I attended a professional development seminar with a social worker who later became my neighbor and friend, Jo Glusman. Jo was there to speak about the trials that LGBTQ students faced every day in school. She told a story about a young closeted gay man who was an average student in Chemistry. Yet, he loved being in that class every day. Why? Because that teacher had made it ABUNDANTLY clear that derogatory language toward any student was not allowed in his class. The phrase that Jo used to describe this young man’s feelings was that in Chemistry class, he could “breathe.”

I think of Jo, and that story, on every first day of school, when I say this to my students, no matter their age, grade, or instructional level:

This is the most important thing I will say to you this year, and I will look every one of you in the eye after I say it and ask you to nod that you have heard me—in this classroom, every day, you will be safe. I don’t care where you live, who you have a crush on, how much money your parents make, who unfriended you on Facebook last night, none of it. I don’t care who your siblings are, and I don’t care what shoes you wear. And those things will not be a reason why anyone else looks at you funny in here. In this class, you will be safe, every day. Is that clear?

Then I look at each kid until they look at me and nod.

That’s day one.

Safe doesn’t mean comfortable

Now let me contradict myself. Or seem to. Being safe in my class DOES NOT mean that you may not be uncomfortable. In fact, I believe that making kids uncomfortable is one of the best ways to get them to grow. I am fond of saying to parents that one only learns to grapple by grappling with things.

I know that experienced teachers are reading this and wondering when I’ll get to the cutting edge teaching idea. “When will he tell me something I don’t know?” they’re asking. Well, as my son would say, “Yeah, funny story about that…”

Nothing I’m doing here is new, and nothing I’m doing is cutting edge. Now more than ever, though, I believe that what I am doing is meaningful, and meaningful has no expiration date. A quick note—the following round table developed as a freshman version of the Socratic Seminars which are set pieces for Carl and me in our 11th grade Humanities course, which we call Viewpoints. Here is a blog post I co-wrote with Carl and Allison a few years back about that class.

In my classroom, I insist on civility as students share opinions, examine assumptions, and use evidence to grow their thinking.

Here’s how I model those things:

  • I assume that my freshmen in 9th grade Government and Economics have opinions, but that they are still trying them on. These ideas may be their parents’, their friends’, and/or their own, but all are still malleable, even disposable. Few are SET in stone, yet all may SEEM like they are.
  • Freshmen need to get comfortable forming and wielding those ideas, WITH EVIDENCE. A favorite phrase of mine (more and more germane these days) is “Why do those who know the least often know it the loudest?” We need to disabuse kids of the notion that this is acceptable practice.
  • Kids need to know that paying attention to ideas we don’t agree with, and listening to those with whom we don’t agree, is the sign of an intellectual and a citizen. This does not assume eventual agreement, but it does encourage the age-old process of the dialectic (see “expiration date” above).
  • I try to couch ideas not as opinions, but as questions. Is there such a thing as too much freedom of speech? If a baker can turn away a gay couple’s order for a wedding cake, can a restaurant owner refuse to serve a group of klansmen on Prime Rib Sunday?

The way we practice a lot of this in 9th grade is through our weekly Round Table Discussions (“RTDs” we call them).

Round Table Discussions

Starting early in September, the class is randomly divided into even groups, and each week a group sits in a center circle for 12 minutes, discussing an assigned article. The group is required to margin note and annotate my article, find another related article of their choice, and annotate that also. They must use one quote in the discussion, and they are also scored on collaboration: are they listening? Do they use earlier comments to support their own? Do they refute earlier comments calmly, even crediting the group member who uttered it? Do they monologue at the cost of other voices, or invite others to speak?

During all this, I say nothing. I simply sit and transcribe every comment.

On the outside, the rest of the class is required to make a public observation on something that they have seen. In addition, one subset of kids will take active notes on the group in the middle, turning those in for a grade.

We do this for the entire year, with groups being rejiggered each quarter. I tell them all of this during the first week, and I tell them that an RTD will be a part of their final exam in June. I remind them several times as the year goes on, as well as gently upping expectations each quarter.

I also talk about it often so that the quiet kids know they will have to speak up, the lazy homework doers know that they will have to margin note and submit articles, the mad talkers will need to let others in on the conversation, and that NO ONE will be able to hide from this.

See—making kids uncomfortable in a safe place!

The other component here is the articles and topics themselves, like these:

  • The soccer mom who takes her kids to Chipotle just as the Tuesday open carry rifle club is meeting to show off their guns.
  • The young woman who gets fired for showing her middle finger to the president’s limousine, but her co-worker with misogynist utterances on his FB page keeps his job.
  • The town that holds up zoning for a Mosque, yet a new big box store is being constructed down the road.

Kids begin to understand: this is America, your America, right now. What would YOU do if you had to sort these things out? Why do you think that? What evidence do you have to support it? How about your classmate across from you, with whom you also have Bio and Band—what if they disagree with you?

These are weekly activities, and everyday expectations, in my classroom. Perhaps the world is much different from that: less safe, less thoughtful, less willing to engage biases and turn them around in the light.

But that makes it more important for me to keep that light on then, doesn’t it?

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