Story by Quinn Manzo
Illustration by David Sohn
When class discussions go smoothly, they can result in logical compromises and new ideas that build on each other. However, a productive dialogue is fragile; it can quickly become futile and often leaves students feeling alienated and threatened in an environment that is supposed to make them feel supported and respected. It is the teacher’s responsibility to foster the positive environment that students need through setting reasonable ground rules, picking constructive topics, and monitoring behavior throughout the discussion.
Before a discussion even begins, it’s crucial to pick a prompt that is beneficial to the entire class. A discussion concerning the legitimacy and existence of a marginalized group, such as the human rights of Black people in the United States, opportunities for women, and the marriage rights of the LGBTQ+ community, is destined to fall apart. Invalidating someone’s existence is not a different opinion; it’s an ignorant prejudice that no student nor teacher should ever heed. The effect these topic choices have on the students involved is long-lasting and infuriating.
“During a socratic seminar, a particular student made many racist and insensitive comments that were personally offensive to me and other students,” an anonymous junior said. “I remember shaking and feeling my skin getting hot as I heard the words repeatedly leave this student’s mouth. I felt helpless because I was hearing blatantly racist comments in the place where I was supposed to feel safe and free of judgment.”
Monitoring behavior is also imperative for a conducive dialogue. Discussions quickly become unproductive when students stray too far from the topic at hand or begin attacking their classmates instead of the ideas that they present. Teachers are often much too lenient and some even find the altercations entertaining and will laugh or chime in with harmful quips that belittle the feelings of the students being attacked.
A fruitful platform can’t coexist with hate speech or slander. With the right selection of prompts and diligent control of behavior in a class dialogue, students can leave class feeling safe and supported as they should.