A real life lesson in civil discourse

*note:  this article appeared in the Washington Post

I live in arguably the most polarized state in our country at one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history.  More often than not, discussions across the aisle in North Carolina are characterized by insults and hyperbole, and at times this corrosive political climate can be downright demoralizing.  But a recent spontaneous, real-life lesson in civil discourse with my 7th grade students gave me hope that the future might look different.

In the wake of the horrific murders of 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida, the idea of arming teachers to prevent school shootings was raised by legislators, then endorsed by President Trump. After mulling over the proposal, I wrote an op-ed which explained why giving guns to teachers was a dangerous idea and offered what I saw as a more effective solution.  

The article called out North Carolina for funding school counselors, psychologists, and social workers at levels far below the standard ratios recommended by their respective industries.  It suggested increasing funding for support services so students who need that help are more likely to get it.  The piece included my email address so that readers could contact me, and I received a number of emails from folks on both sides of the issue.  

One of the responses I received suggested the real reason I was uncomfortable with the idea of armed teachers was that I lacked testosterone and said I needed to spend more time lifting weights.  This message relied heavily on personal insults, offered very little in terms of meaningful support for the author’s views, and made no effort to understand my position.

After alternately laughing about and stewing over the email for a couple of days, I realized that it could be a useful tool in my classroom.  My 7th grade English Language Arts students were just about to spend a class period doing peer revisions on each other’s writing, and it seemed perfect timing to bring the text into my class and talk as a whole group about how it was written. The next day I gave students a bit of background on the op-ed for context, then showed them a slide with the email on it.  The only guidance I gave my classes was that I wanted them to read the text and offer suggestions on how it could be improved. Then I sat back and watched them work.

I was amazed by how positive and insightful my students’ responses were.  They offered suggestions for how the author might improve the mechanics of the piece and said that a civil tone would be more likely to lead to a productive debate.  Here are some of the specific recommendations my seventh graders made during class:


*Work to understand opposing points of view.

*Be sure that your opinion is clear and well supported.

*Take a fact-based approach if you want to persuade.

*Edit carefully for errors of conventions.  They impact credibility.

*Refrain from name calling.  It’s often cover for a weak position.


The wisdom of my students’ reflections on the unkind email reminded me of the Parkland high school students’ advocacy.  One of the few encouraging outcomes of that tragedy has been the leadership of the students who survived the shooting.  Students like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg have showed an authoritative courage that has surprised many adults, and their activism has kept the public’s attention focused on solutions to school shootings far longer than is usually the case after such events.  The Parkland students have persisted despite the abuse of those who oppose their efforts, motivated by a desire to do right by their fallen classmates.

I’m inspired by the ability of the Parkland students and my own students to cut through the noise and focus on what’s most important: our need to be courageous and unite in the face of our shared challenges.  These young people give me hope that we might one day be able to rise above the divisive politics that make it impossible for us to address many of the problems we face as a nation. Let’s hope the rest of us are able to learn a crucial lesson from them that can help us move forward together.

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