On the afternoon of last Wednesday’s attempted insurrection at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Twitter was a refuge. While living and working in pandemic-related isolation, educators scrolled frenetically through their feeds to confirm again and again—among a chorus of verified accounts—the most obvious of our conclusions: This attack was an act of white supremacy.
The Twitterverse of educators, in particular, echoed inescapably with calls to action. “How are you teaching this tomorrow?” a dozen or so influencers asked, and then another and another and another, until we had convinced ourselves that Thursday would be the most courageous day of our teaching careers. We would speak in hard terms (“sedition,” we’ll say); we would draw hard lines (“because that is racism,” we’ll assert); and we would dole out hard truths (“The election was not rigged”—duh).
Now, almost a week later, I want to ask a follow-up question: “Is this what ‘courage’ really looks like and sounds like in the classroom?”
I’d argue that boldly stating the truth in a room full of children is not courageous; further still, I’d argue that it’s instructionally counterproductive.
Dialogic Teaching and Learning
To be clear, instances exist, for sure, demanding that teachers immediately correct a student’s ignorance—particularly when any other student’s safety or self-worth is at risk. But when composing a lesson about current events, we can’t cavalierly proclaim ourselves the arbiters of truth (as counterintuitive as that sounds). Every student is a product of their socialization—because of their parents’ beliefs, their media consumption, etc.—and each of them deserves our empathy.
And empathy is, above all else, the ability to listen to the wrong ideas compassionately.
That’s right: listen. No child deserves to feel victimized for having been raised in a silo of propaganda or misinformation. As human beings, we forget this in our outrage; as educators, we can’t afford to. The dissonance we create between lessons taught at school and falsehoods sustained at home can be distressing for children, and for that dissonance to translate into deeper learning, we need to honor our responsibility to protect our students from feelings of shame or alienation—regardless of their circumstances.
Dialogic instruction—that is teaching and learning through classroom conversation—will be our most vital tool in 2021. Within a dialogic instructional model, the teacher is the facilitator of the student-centered discussion. They ensure equity of voice and a meaningful trajectory of the conversation. Students’ differences (say, in their understanding of voter fraud, the Black Lives Matter Movement, etc.) are seen as resources for learning rather than problems to solve. In other words, we start with our differences, and we ask, “What can our differences teach us about ourselves, each other and the world around us?”
Dialogic instruction requires intention and vision. Here are three ways to prepare yourself for a more dialogic approach in 2021:
Don’t teach for retweets. You might have a few hundred followers on Twitter—and even more friends on Facebook—but their approval shouldn’t matter. What matters is the group of twenty-or-so children which you’ve committed yourself to serving. And do you know how many of those children have been told by their parents not to listen—not to even trust—their English and history teachers? Of course, you don’t. Because this is school to them: learning despite the teachers and their “liberal indoctrination.”
And this is what we’re up against, as educators: White supremacy, in all its self-preservation, has branded the words necessary to teach and learn about it as “liberal brainwashing.”
So, here’s your assignment: Can you invest all students in learning about the real world without tripping the wires of their programmed responses? Of course, you can—but it will require more mindfulness and intention than can be explained in 280 characters or less.
Remember that success is incremental. With dialogic instruction, conversation stretches students’ capacity to think critically about their world and to access the humanity of others—but it never expects any student to achieve the same growth in perspective as their peers. Really, it is the epitome of individualized learning.
That being said, facilitating a conversation about systemic racism with children who’ve been trained not to listen won’t end in triumph. You’ll have to hear, process, and translate points of view that are antithetical to everything you believe is right and just. Remember: No child is born believing in “the deep state,” yet every child deserves an invitation to practice intelligent discourse with people who think—and know—differently.
White supremacy can’t defend itself. This means that when you silence certain students with your “hard words,” you are denying them the cognitive dissonance necessary to unlearn the indefensible. In a way, you’ve done more harm than good.
Anticipate the moral injury. This incremental success—these tiny steps towards helping a child escape the closed circuit of misinformation they’ve lived within—won’t feel satisfying. At worst, it’ll feel icky. As you develop relationships with students and learn insights into their family life and political beliefs, the world will feel more hopeless than ever. This is the world outside education’s Twitterverse; it’s real, and it’s populated by generations of people whose schooling fell short.
And this is where the real courage is required. Not by drawing a line between the students’ understanding and your own—but by courageously inviting everyone in the room to learn about the world from each other.
This year, students deserve more than our outrage. They deserve our emotional regulation and our intentional instruction. As educators, we need to meet this historic moment with passion and with best practices.
If you’re interested in implementing a dialogic teaching tool, click here for a glimpse at the Context/License/Privilege Protocol. This facilitation method was published in the English Journal’s May 2019 issue, Vol. 108.
Tate Henderson Aldrich is an educator, writer and advocate. He is the 2017 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and a National Council of Teachers of English author. This includes the publication of his facilitation method, “The Context/License/Privilege Protocol: Students’ Identities and Relevant Conversations”—a dialogic tool that promotes equitable classroom discussions. Currently, Tate works at ...