Researchers have long documented the lack of robust discussions of public issues in the classroom. Given the current environment of increasing ideological and cultural diversity, many teachers are fearful that open discussions may be hurtful to marginalized students, that they do not have the skills to manage discussions if they become especially “spirited,” and that they do not have support for administrators in the event of parent or community complaints.

Democratic societies thrive on discussion, dissent and debate. Too often, however, our society provides poor role models for young people trying to learn the skills to be effective, active and responsible participants in that democratic society. Public schools have the potential to expose students to multiple and diverse perspectives on a variety of issues, enriching their social and personal lives while planting the seeds for a stronger democracy.

The Respectful Conversations in Schools (RCS) protocol is designed to provide teachers and students with tool for approaching controversial public issues that is responsive to the current political climate, particularly the increase in political polarization.

Improving Listening Skills and Increasing Empathy

The protocol is designed to increase students’ (a) knowledge and perspectives on relevant civic issues, (b) participation skills, including self- and social awareness, group membership, and conflict resolution skills; and (c) dispositions, including political efficacy and empathy in dialogue across difference. The protocol improves students’ leadership and social emotional learning skills, as well as teaches competencies for success in college, career and civic life.

What’s Included in a Respectful Conversation?

There are several core aspects to a RCS:

  1. Small groups of 4-5 students, led by a trained student facilitator.
  2. Use of a timer to allow every group member time to share.
  3. Meaningful, significant, relevant topics.
  4. Two rounds of questions designed to move small groups of students to a deeper understanding of a predetermined topic. This includes a short period of written reflection before participants respond to each question.
  5. One round of “Questions of Genuine Interest” designed to more fully understand others’ points of view.
  6. A closing round designed to help participants reflect on the experience and changes in their perceptions.

Listen to 7th grade students from Valley View Middle School describe their experience with Respectful Conversations in Schools.

If you are interested in learning more about Respectful Conversations in Schools, contact Amy Anderson at 651-955-1679 or amy.anderson@ymcamn.org.