The next time you’re at a party, go ahead and ask someone you’ve never met, “How do you feel about the n-word?” or “Do you have any connections to gun violence in your life?” This is certainly a tough way to begin a conversation, and no way to make new acquaintances, but it’s how the students participating in Speak Truth jump right to the subject of the day.
At Speak Truth, students from high schools all across the nation’s capital hold honest, respectful discussions about contemporary social issues. They know that they’ll be tackling tough issues while being receptive to the opinions of their peers in an environment that promotes open discussion of polarizing topics. By engaging in a dialogue that exposes these students to a diverse array of perspectives, participants learn to productively and respectfully discuss controversial themes. In this month’s conversation, students discussed two articles, “Too Taboo for Class?” on the subject of using the n-word in academic settings, and “The Psychological Aftermath of Surviving School Shootings”.
In discussing these real world challenges and seeking to understand the importance of open dialogue, students shared stories of pride, censorship, fear, and support. While there is no intended outcome of these discussions – they are not drafting gun legislation proposals – students are exposed to a variety of media through speeches, essays, movies, news articles, and gain community service hours for facilitating discussions and writing follow-up papers. More importantly, students are practicing real world skills that will benefit them in the future. Alejandro, a sophomore at Georgetown Prep, who aspires to work in public health policy, notes:
“I learned how to listen to people, I think it’s an important skill I hadn’t practiced until now. You think you have all the answers, but you actually don’t. Listening is very important and especially allowing everybody’s ideas [to be] heard.”
Amora, an 11th grader from Richard Wright PCS, who hopes to work in politics, history, or education, also shared that she thought, “a really cool thing […] was that we all agreed there had to be a certain level of maturity” in the conversations. This was noted during a tense exchange on the use of the n-word in which several questions were asked and responded to, followed by another question on someone’s point of view about the topic. These questions were always received, and answered, with respect to the other’s views, regardless of how they conflicted.
Forbes notes that employers are increasingly looking for candidates that are driven and know what they want. They seek employees who have goals for their career, can point to their successes, and know their strengths. Equally important, however, they are also giving more weight to “soft skills” in the workplace: independent thinkers, problem solvers, proactive team-players (Forbes). The job recruitment site Monster.com goes further, noting the importance of communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem solving, critical observation, conflict resolution, and leadership in the hiring process (Monster – article written from Society for Human Resource Management data).
When speaking with the student facilitators, you begin to understand how they are practicing these skills that are so essential for their careers and personal growth. “I also think it’s a really good way to […] be able to think, for facilitating, be able to think on the spot – make sure you’re taking notes, you need to figure out what’s important and identify the major themes that come up because you can’t plan that out ahead of time,” remarked Miranda, a student from Georgetown Day School who is intent on supporting social justice and activism in her future. She and her partner, Alejandro, collaborated to lead the discussion by planning several types of questions that could flow with the conversation and allow points to be expressed while keeping to the main objective.
This program is run by the students. As a national model for civic discourse and dialogue among young people, Speak Truth prepares students to thrive in a university classroom, where they will engage in similar high-level discourse, and creates space for dialogue where students can safely share their voices and experiences. Speak Truth seminars have the power to shape a generation of socially conscious future leaders and citizens who will be responsible for building a better future for us all. This independence, the ability to facilitate a difficult conversation without adult influence, allows students engaged with Speak Truth to improve essential skills for their future: communication, planning, inclusion, active listening, and critical thinking.
You may be wondering how Center for Inspired Teaching creates an environment like this. Can teachers do this themselves? Absolutely! Teachers can get involved and shadow a session, held the third Thursday of each month, and see first hand Inspired Teaching in action emphasizing student-directed classrooms. By enrolling in Inspired Changemakers and Critical Conversationalists, you’ll get to see these dialogues in action and learn how to create respectful discussions in your classrooms.