Purpose

Among the most important civic skills students can learn are how to exchange ideas about public policy in a thoughtful and civil manner. Like deliberations, this teaching strategy helps students practice those skills. Civil conversations are carefully constructed discussions among students about public policy issues. Students are usually given a text to read (written or electronic media) and then grouped with a few other students to analyze and discuss the text.

Procedures

  1. Choose a controversial public policy topic you want students to understand. Choose two or three resources for students to consider relating to the topic. Each resource should represent an opposing or alternative view on the subject. The resources can be quotations, articles, editorials, cartoons, or blog posts.
  2. Make copies of the resources or provide students with links where they can find them online. In addition, create a handout for each student that includes the instructions below. Then post just the bolded steps and bulleted expectations in the classroom so students can refer to them throughout the activity.
  3. When class begins, put students into small groups, between three and five students. Distribute the instructions shown below. Confirm students understand their task. Let them know how much time they have for their discussions and write that time on the board. Then let students begin as you circulate around the room to observe their work.
    • Read the text on your own. Read it on your own first and read it as if it were written by someone you respect. Do not stop to think about any particular section—just pay attention to your first impressions about it. Then go back and reread it, looking for the main points and answering these questions:
      • What is this text about?
      • What are the main points?
      • What points do you agree with?
      • What do you disagree with?
      • What are two questions about this reading that you think need to be discussed? (The best questions are often ones that have no simple answers and that can use materials in the text as evidence.)
    • Join a small group to discuss the text. Consider the main ideas and answer the questions you asked during the reading activity. During the discussion:
      • Everyone in the conversation group should participate in the conversation.
      • Listen carefully to what others are saying.
      • Ask clarifying questions if you do not understand a point that is raised.
      • Be respectful of what others are saying.
      • Refer to the text to support your ideas.
      • Focus on the ideas of the others in your discussion group, not their personalities.
  4. When time for the small group discussions is up, call the groups together for a whole-class discussion and debrief. Questions to ask might include:
    • What did you learn about the topic?
    • What perspectives and arguments were most persuasive from the resources given? What made them persuasive?
    • Did you or other students in your group introduce information to the discussion that was not included in the resource materials? If so, how valuable or persuasive was it?
    • What more, if anything, do you need to know or understand before you make your own conclusion about the issue?
    • Where might you find that information?
    • What is your view on the issue? Support your conclusion with reasons.
    • What did you learn from the process of civil conversation?
    • Did your group find common ground or areas of agreement on the topic?
    • How did this civil conversation compare to other conversations you've have about controversial topics?