Teachers find deliberating brings diverse students together

When the Kettering Foundation in July convened a group of 16 teachers from across the country to tal

As a student and, later, as a parent, my biggest worries at the beginning of every September rarely involved reading, writing or arithmetic. Rather, they had to do with non-academic issues that can make or break a school year: teasing, bullying and the Darwinian atmosphere that can be all too common on the playground or the classroom.

When these issues are present in a student’s school life, it is hard to ignore the fact that learning is a social process — affected (negatively or positively) by how educators choose to engage students in learning across differences.

So when the Kettering Foundation in July convened a group of 16 teachers from across the country to talk about the surprising, non-academic impacts of using deliberation in school, I traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to listen.

Deliberation is a way of discussing public issues — in a civics class, say — that helps diverse groups recognize what they have in common, the values they share, possible responses to issues and consequences.

More than issues

Unanimous agreement isn’t the point of deliberation. Increased understanding is the goal, because it emphasizes dialogue rather than mere debate. Teachers are finding it does more than educate students about issues.

Teachers like Sarah Schneck of Aniwa, Wis., for instance. She works at an alternative school where more than 90 percent of the students are low-income and considered at-risk because they haven’t succeeded in traditional school settings.

When Schneck started using deliberation at the EEA (Enrich, Excel, Achieve) Learning Academy to discuss issues such as bullying, gun control and treatment of the mentally ill, she noticed that students absorbed more than civics lessons. The students began to listen more and argue less. By deliberating together and listening to classmates, they could better articulate their emotions, even difficult ones. They had fewer behavioral problems. They began to complete more homework assignments because they found it easier to ask for help.

Using deliberation in the classroom improves the atmosphere, the educators agreed.

“Students are able to realize there are other perspectives they can respect,” said Jon Cabot Lodge, a history teacher who uses deliberation at his high school in State College, Pa.

Drawing in students

Teachers say that the practice of discussing issues this way also helps some of the most withdrawn students participate.

Stacie Molnar-Main, who is researching the impact of deliberation in school settings, observed one normally withdrawn, special-needs student named Patty speak up when the topic was end-of-life care. Patty revealed to the class for the first time that her mother’s life depended on a feeding tube at home and that she often helped care for her mother.

“It changed the discussion,” Molnar-Main said. “Every time the class discussed an option, the students would ask how it would affect Patty’s mom.” Patty, who had previously been ignored by some classmates, emerged from the discussion a respected member of the class.

When one of Schenck’s classes tackled prisons as a topic upon which to deliberate, a student decided to gather information by interviewing her incarcerated father. “Most students didn’t know she had a dad in prison. It turned out there were seven students who were in the same situation. They all thought they were alone. It vastly increased empathy,” Schenck said.

It also increases a sense of personal empowerment, according to Donnan Stoicovy, principal of Park Forest Elementary School in State College. After the earthquake in Haiti two years ago, she expected students to ask her whether she had heard about the disaster. Instead, one student after another asked her, “What are we going to do to help Haiti?” Stoicovy recalled. “Deliberation has made the culture of my school different. It makes it seem smaller than its 500 students, she said.

Zakiya Jenkins, a 7th- and 8th-grade teacher at W.J. Christian School in Birmingham, Ala., holds three student-run forums a year so that by the time the students graduate from 8th grade, they have deliberated together on six different issues. Jenkins trains students in after-school sessions on how to moderate the forums. “I’m not the moderator,” Jenkins said. “They are the ones doing the talking.”

Thought and time

The teachers all agreed they put thought and time into training kids how to communicate with one another so everyone’s views could be heard. “We go over the Golden Rule. We talk about treating others the way that they would like to be treated,” Schneck said. And it generally takes more than one deliberation to begin to see results.

The teachers survey the students before and afterward to measure what they learned.

“One kid said, ‘From deliberation, I learned not to hit people when they say something that I don’t like,’ ” Jenkins said, laughing.

The 16 educators spent time collaborating on common survey language so that they can all gather uniform information about the impact of deliberation, the results of which Molnar-Main hopes to publish. But they agreed that they already see good things.

“I’ve got kids talking to each other who never talked to each other,” said Bernie Stein, a retired social studies teacher who now leads a Hofstra University network of K-12 educators who use deliberation in the classroom. “Most of us who went into the teaching profession want that. We want our kids to be better people.”

Maura Casey is a former editorial writer for The New York Times.

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