How Educators Are Fostering Courageous Dialogue Among Students – Digital Promise

How Educators Are Fostering Courageous Dialogue Among Students

An image of teachers sitting around in a circle discussing.

June 7, 2024 | By

In fall 2023, my director approached me with the opportunity to help lead Digital Promise’s year-long scale-up project, “Community Socratic Circles to Build Teacher Capacity for Culturally Responsive Teaching,” as an instructional coach. In a collaboration with Reynoldsburg City Schools, Digital Promise used the Inclusive Innovation process to incorporate Socratic Circles into their solution, which resulted in student-led and centered discussions focused on a text or essential questions, with the goal of having participants learn from each other and step into the role of facilitator.

In our project, we are scaling up this solution by providing teachers across three school districts—Capital School District, Suffern Central School District, and Roselle Public Schools—with training and resources in culturally responsive teaching so they can support these student-led discussions across a broad range of topic areas that are meaningful to their learners. For example, one teacher may receive training to discuss who gets to define what “proper” language means, and another teacher may receive training to discuss how students might use their math skills to visualize the pay gap for women vs. men in STEM fields. In doing so, we hope to achieve the goal of strengthening student engagement, ownership, and leadership while increasing discourse in these important topics. Since the project launched in January, we have built shared understandings of culturally responsive teaching and participated in our first Socratic Circle as a team.

I believe that teachers can model the vulnerability we wish our students would experience by also trying new things and being honest with their own experiences of discomfort and growth.

—Stephanie Powell, Suffern Central School District Instructional Coach for English as a New Language

An Educator’s Call to Action

As an English as a New Language teacher and instructional coach, an area of focus in my work is around increasing student academic discussion. We know from research that students who can discuss complex ideas with peers are more likely to have stronger writing skills and comprehension across all content areas. It is easy to fall into the habit of having teachers lead and carry discussions in class, and oftentimes we assume that students either can’t discuss these complex ideas or that they don’t want to. From what I have learned over the course of my 17 years in education, it is more often the case that students have not been explicitly taught how to have rich academic discussions that are student-led.

As a teacher, I used to set a yearly goal to focus on one modality of language—reading, writing, speaking and listening—and try to learn and understand as much as possible about it. These often turned into year-and-a-half-long projects, but doing this early in my career allowed me to really understand, experiment, and try things that enhanced student growth and engagement. I was intentional about sharing my practices with students and explaining the importance of trying new things to see how they go.

I believe that teachers can model the vulnerability we wish our students would experience by also trying new things and being honest with their own experiences of discomfort and growth. Couple this desire to understand and increase student discussion in class with the passion I have for justice and equity, and this project truly seemed custom made for me!

My ultimate goal as an educator is to have every student—regardless of their cultural, linguistic, or any other background that doesn’t place them in the historical majority—learn to speak up and advocate for themselves. To ensure we have a society that speaks up for others, we need to start by teaching students to speak up for themselves. The best place for students to do this is to practice in brave spaces we create in our classrooms.

An image of hands in the air with text bubbles.

The Promise and Possibilities of Socratic Circles

In just a few short months of the Socratic Circles scale-up project, I can already feel the growth and possibilities. Our teachers are engaging in conversations with each other and thinking deeply about culturally relevant practices and how to implement them within their unique classrooms. Our school district has seen growth within our multilingual learner community and it has been a great opportunity to infuse more diverse perspectives and lived experiences. With all of this in mind, it is even more essential to ensure our students are developing skills and strategies to engage in conversations with people different from them.

Every educator involved in this initiative shares a deep commitment to empowering their students’ voices. In recent years, we have observed a shift toward more polarized viewpoints, underscoring the importance of equipping students with the skills and confidence to engage in meaningful dialogue, even with those who hold differing perspectives. As a team, we also discussed how to equip students with the skills they need to respond and navigate situations when they hear or experience something hurtful or harmful. We acknowledge that people may unintentionally cause harm due to ignorance or lack of awareness. Our goal is for students to move beyond feeling alienated by such remarks and instead foster conversations and community where learning together leads to deeper understanding.

My hope is that this project will develop the skills of all students within our school community to become adept and thoughtful communicators through engaging in various conversations, and delving into and addressing complex societal challenges. I am looking forward to continuing this important work over the next year to support students in acquiring these skills and having opportunities to engage in practices that foster courageous dialogue.

Want to learn more about Socratic Circles? Read about our work with Reynoldsburg City Schools to co-create this innovative solution.

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