Today on the Heinemann Podcast we’re talking about tough conversations in the classroom.
Do you find yourself struggling with how to respond to students when topics like race, gender, politics, region and sexuality are brought up at school? These subjects are part of our students’ lives.
So then how do we create learning conditions where kids can ask the questions they want to ask and have tough conversations? Author Sara Ahmed says it begins with discomfort and not trying to save the moment.
In Sara’s new book, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, she explores what happens when we step back as teachers, and allow students to take the lead. She says, when we welcome discomfort in the classroom, we promote student growth and deeper conversation.
We started our conversation learning about the inspiration behind Sara’s book…
Sara: I was reading Harvard Project Negotiation's Difficult Conversations, and I was going through it and I was figuring out that we arrive at these stories when we're talking ... we come with these stories, excuse me, and we arrive sort of at this third story. But when we're doing that, I'm coming with all of my experience, and you are coming with all of your experience, and my identity, and your identity, and these layers of interactions that we've had with the world. But somewhere in there is always going to be some tension, right? And tension is a good thing, and it's just how you navigate that tension with somebody is like where you're gonna get to this final point. And so, I arrived at it because I was noticing more and more that I was creating spaces in my classroom for kids to deal with that tension rather than shutting it down and just dealing with more complex issues 'cause I was letting them, like we talk about in Upstanders, ask questions about the world rather than me telling them all this information.
And so, when you look at something like ... We practice every day the reading strategies, the comprehension strategies of reading and literacy in class, I thought, well, there's these social comprehension strategies that we actually have in the real world, thinking about our identity, listening to one another, seeing the humanity in others, being able to be a more informed citizen, right? So, these are all strategies that we do every day through our reading, through our conversations, through our listening to people. And so this is where it came from. I mean, between that book, Difficult Conversations, and then just understanding my work and literacy and reading comprehension strategies, I thought, well, there's this idea that we're always encouraging talk and student voice and their agency, so why aren't we working through this idea of social comprehension? What do I need to be able to interact with you, to have discourse with you, to talk about something that we may disagree on? What are the strategies that we both need to come with to the table to have that conversation?
Brett: So, I want to come back to social comprehension, but on that point, on tension and listening and agency and having those conversations, you write in the book that it's important that we keep the focus on the students. And that's easy to slip away from because we're affected by this too. How do we do that? How do we keep the focus on the students?
Sara: I've been thinking more about how we almost have to check a couple things at the door as teachers, right, our bias at the door, our crusader capes at the door, right? I have things that I feel really passionate and I'm curious about in my own personal life that I read about, that I care about ... is that always the thing that I need to bring to the kids, right, because they have these outside experiences when they're not with me, that they're hearing things and they're listening and they're reading. And so, I need to be asking them more what's in their news and what are they thinking about, and so we have to keep the focus on the kids because we're helping them work through how to find that tension, how they're feeling, right?
And so, there's lots of ways I could continue to center myself. "Well, this is how I feel about this, and this is how upset this makes me," and all of these things, but how is that helping them? And so, I think it's easy for teachers to slip into that, right, and especially when you're the center of all the communication. And that happens in classrooms, where it's just A to B and I'm giving you this knowledge, right? But we need to help kids find a place and a space where they can just talk about it themselves, and I can step out and kind of do the idea where you're sort of leading from behind and listening from behind as they engage in those conversations.
Brett: So, let's come back to social comprehension. How did you come to social comprehension? How did you discover that work?
Sara: I started disagreeing with people more, or I think I found a way ... or I started paying attention to what that felt like more, right? So, people say that we're more polarized than we have been. I think we've definitely been polarized for decades as a nation. But as people are having social outlets to say things and are able to put things on screens and in 140 characters and all of those things, I started almost getting a sense of how my body was reacting to what people were saying and what they believe, and people that I've known and cared about for my entire life. And so, I thought, okay, well, I could completely disagree with this person or not understand where they're coming from at all, but what do I have to do to get to a place where I can hear them, even though in my heart of hearts I don't understand where they're coming from? So, what are the things that I need to do to be able to do that? And this is about the decentering again, right?
It's not about me, right? I'm bringing my story, and they're bringing theirs, and so I have to step back and just be a little patient, I think, and say, "Okay. Well, I can completely disagree with you, or I don't feel the way that you feel about something, but I have to step back and listen to why that is." It happened because of kids, right? You start hearing kids bring things from home. They talk to each other about things, and I just thought this is not about me, this is about all of us and how we're all living through this democracy together. It's a skill and a responsibility in our democracy to be able to listen to someone and how that looks, right? It's not about conflict. It's discourse and debate, and our democracy ... The entire experiment of our democracy is shaped on argument and discourse. We have an entire branch of our government that should operate in a way where argument yields some sort of final conclusion or a law. That's where justice should come from. That's how I got there.
Brett: So, how do we then take this work's ... of social comprehension, how do we get started with it in the classroom?
Sara: You center the kids. In Upstanders, we start the book with centering the kid's identity. It's the same thing. You have to be able to come from a place where you know as much as you can know about these kids and the stories that they have and what they carry and every piece of their identity that they're coming with and why they ask the questions they do and why they respond the way they do to things. That's where you start. You start by watching, kid watching, and listening as best as you can and just listening with your whole heart. You have to listen with love, and like this critical love with kids where you're holding them to an expectation where if they say something ... in middle school classes this happens, right? They'll say something, they'll blurt out something, or they'll feel really offended by something and they'll come out with this conviction, and then you have to just step back and say, "Wow. Where is that coming from?" And be able to ask some questions as a teacher rather than sort of knowing all the answers.
Brett: So, you introduced us to identity webs in Upstanders, and you bring us back to that in the beginning portion of this book. Talk about the importance of identity webs in this work.
Sara: So, in order for me to understand, again, this ... I'm centering myself in this answer, I guess, in thinking about this, but in order for me to understand, I said I was getting that feeling inside where I was trying to figure out what that tension felt like in my heart and my mind. I had to think about my own identity. What does it feel like to be the daughter of Indian/Muslim immigrants in a time where positioning Muslims is dangerous, you know? And so, I had to go back and look at the way that I see myself, but then also hold the mirror up and say, "Okay. This is my self-reflection. But then how do other people see me as that, or just view my last name?"
Sara: I think with kids it's the same thing, right? They have to start unpacking all of these layers of their identity, where they might just see themselves as a soccer player or as a reader, but being a soccer player and a reader helps you respond to certain things in life, right? There's a lot of things that you bring as a soccer player or a reader in the world. As a gamer in the world, you bring so much to how you think and experience the world.
Brett: You talk a little bit about in the book how important it is for us to sit with discomfort in silence in this work. What do you mean by that?
Sara: In probably my first or second year of teaching, I used to go to the Rochelle Lee Fund in Chicago, and it was this organization that was dedicated to just bringing books to the Chicago Public Schools' classrooms. And they taught us how to have group discussions, sometimes around the whole class novel at the time, and we would talk about that. And I'll never forget, like in our second professional development meeting we were having our own book club discussion. This is, again ... it was teacher modeling, right? We were having that own vulnerable space where we read a book together and we discuss it as a group and we wouldn't agree. But when someone said something that maybe caused a bit of discomfort in the room, things would go silent, and often as teachers we try and jump in to save the moment, or save the silence for some reason, right? It's just this inherent thing we have. We don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable, so we might just say something like, "Well, okay, let's move on," or, "That's nice," or something that's really artificial, right?
So, they told us in that training, they said, "Just sit with the silence," and I'll never forget it because there's so much growth that happens in that discomfort. Again, it's almost just like checking in, it's the whole body listening, right? How's my heart feeling about this? Why do I get that tense feeling? Why am I so angry? And that's it. There's tremendous growth in the silence, and so I started working in my classroom with that. And the kids... You watch people do it, right? They look down. They start playing with their pens or their papers, and it's okay, and the kids started doing it too, and I watched. I was like, "Wow. They're thinking through this right now, so don't save the moment. You don't need to be their savior in this moment. They just feel a little bit uncomfortable, and that's okay."
Brett: You recommend in this work that teachers should really do this work for themselves first. Why is that so important?
Sara: 'Cause I kind of learned late in the game that I wasn't doing the work myself, and I don't think I was responding authentically. I think I was telling them more than showing them, you know? And in this type of work where you do have discourse and disagreement in these discussions, I had to go back and do a little bit of the work. It's similar to when you read ... You don't do a read aloud with your class, unless you read the book ... I hope. I hope, you know, to begin with because there are gonna be moments that you can then anticipate that will pop up.
And so, when you do the work yourself you can feel a discomfort, you can maybe perhaps anticipate moments, but you won't be able to anticipate everything. But you can say, like, "Oh, I know the 25, 35 kids in my classroom. I know them really well, and this is where there might be some tension between these kids, or myself, or just this one individual student." You have to do the work. You really have to do the work yourself, so I hope ... That's my hope for this book.
Brett: The book is very practical.
Sara: Oh, that's great.
Brett: It's very ... I don't know how else to say that other than it's very practical. So, walk us through a little bit about how the book is set up and how you sort of hope teachers will use the book.
Sara: This structure that I'm using is actually, again, tied back to this idea of reading comprehension, right? As a literacy coach right now, I'm working through the workshop model all the time, and so I tried to come up with a sort of formula and a framework that teachers know very well, like the workshop model, right? So, the idea of modeling ... you try it together, right, and then the kids go off and they try the work themselves, and you're right there with them alongside, conferring as much as you can, kid watching as much as you can, taking as much formative, anecdotal notes as you can. And then you bring it back together for the share, so you kind of close the loop the same way you would with a mini-lesson workshop structure.
And then the end really of these lessons that I write is the idea that the tensions that can come up during this ... And so, again, like I said, because you're doing the work yourself, I hope, before you're bringing this lesson to your students is that you can anticipate what some of those tensions might be. So, for example, if I'm doing an identity web, a student might just say, "Oh, I don't have anything to write. Like I wrote ... Again, I'm a soccer player, I'm a reader, I play video games. That's it. There's nothing really different about me," and they don't really want to dig deep. So, that could be a tension that comes up, and then there's a "try this" section with each of those tensions and what you could try. Really, a lot of it is what teachers do every day, and that's kneel down beside them, have a conversation with them, listen, and ask a couple of follow up questions that might just nudge them along.
And then there's this piece that I thought in this work ... it's really intentional to slow down and to think, and so there's a synthesis piece that comes with it. All it is is, again, something that teachers are really familiar with, which is the two-column chart. It's in a lot of comprehension books, it's in reading strategy books, it's in critical thinking. So, it's just this idea of, "At first I thought, and now I'm thinking." So, at first I think this, I get it all out, similar to how we do with KWLs, you know, I'm thinking about all these things. This is what I know. This is what I think I know. And then after my work with my peers and after these conversations and after some readings and just listening to the perspective of others, this is maybe where I've come to, and that might be the same.
It might ... Maybe they didn't move that day, and that's okay that everything does not need to be this massive change, you know, this transformation that these kids are having at nine or ten years old. I just think ... But it could be something really subtle. I did a read aloud. There's a great book that's called "Stella Brings the Family" with some fourth graders. It's about how Stella has two dads, and they're having a mother's day party. She's having this conflict all day at school. She's upset, and she's like, "I don't know what to do. I have these two dads." And so, I did a chart with the kids, and I just asked them, I said, "What do you think makes up a family?" And the kids have their experience and their answers. "A family is my mom and my dad and my brother and my dog."
All kids will come up with amazing things, but some kids will kind of catch you by surprise with things like you don't anticipate, like, family is about love and these big sort of conceptual understandings of what family is. But, still, they're very practical, like, "This is who my family is." And then we read a book like that and we start having a conversation, and, again, this was one of those lessons where I just took myself out of the conversation completely and I just let them talk to each other and just decentered myself, and they started to come to this place where they're like, "Oh, well I know someone who's adopted," or, "I only have one parent, you guys." And this is four or five months into the school year when this child feels empowered enough in their peer group to say, "Well, I don't have a dad."
Then you watch the shift in the right hand column of the synthesis sheet that says ... well, again, it could be love is love, it could be a family, it could be moms, dads, grandparents, brothers. Our families look different. And so, reading some of these, they could be tiny, subtle changes, they could also be really big thinking, and you just are so proud of them for being able to just be in this space together that they can feel safe enough to have that conversation.
Brett: You said something there that's really important to revisit and reemphasize, which is a lot of the work that you're guiding us through in this book ... they're small steps, and we need to be cautious to not expect huge epiphanies, huge, dramatic, life changing moments in that setting immediately.
Sara: Right, 'cause that's not realistic, you know?
Sara: We don't even necessarily as adults go through those all the time. It takes a lot of work, 'cause that's why these lessons don't have a time on them. It's not like 40 minutes or 20 minutes you can get these done in. You might need to revisit them. These are almost like a projection, not a plan, right? It's a projection of what might happen and what you can try. I could have a conversation with you about something, and I'm not gonna maybe make a big move, but if I hear ... This is this idea of social comprehension, right? I hear it from you and your perspective, and then I hear it from someone else and their perspective and somebody else, and then I read a little bit. And then slowly there's small shifts. That's the most sustainable type of change, right, is like really small steps and small shifts.
And so, I don't think it'll ever be like a switch that flips that quickly for somebody, and it might be. For teachers, I think it's really important to understand when you're trying these lessons, do not look at yourself and say, "Oh, man. They all don't believe in same sex marriage at the end of this," or, "They're all not democrats by the end of this conversation," you know? "They all don't think politically the same way that I do." That's not realistic, so the authenticity is in the conversation and the discourse, and you're teaching kids not to listen for compliance or for politeness, but it's actually how to help form an argument in your mind.
Brett: Mm-hmm. And throughout that, empathy as a word is starting to sort of verge on that buzzword territory, but it's still important.
Brett: And it still has a really important place in the classroom and in the work that you're talking about. And you've written quite a bit about empathy in the book. Explain why empathy still matters.
Sara: It matters. Again, it's a big conceptual understanding of which there are many working parts to empathy. I mean, you've heard me say before about just reading a book by someone who doesn't look like you, and that's not because ... Your end result is not gonna be, oh, empathy, but you're getting a perspective from someone whom you otherwise wouldn't have heard that perspective from or that you haven't experienced. But it's more, and I think I say this in the book, it's more than just, "Oh, I can read this book," or, "I have this diverse shelf of books, and I have empathy," you know? It's not necessarily that. I think that we have to get proximate ... I talk a lot in the book about getting proximate to ... and Bryan Stevenson talks about getting proximate to problems, right?
If we want to change the world, we have to get proximate to the problems in the world. In social comprehension, you have to get proximate to people. Yes, I could read a book by someone who doesn't look like me, that has a different perspective, but what else am I doing in my everyday life that I can get proximate to somebody who doesn't look like me, that doesn't think like me, that ... We're sitting in echo chambers on Twitter, right? Like my ... and I'll be the first to say it, my Twitter account is a giant echo chamber, you know? I'm not following a lot of people that are complete polar opposite to what I think, and maybe I should do a better job of that. But then it's an interesting thing 'cause my Facebook account is people who I've grown up with, who think very different, then sometimes it's a very different arena, you know?
And so, we sit in these echo chambers all the time, and I can tweet out things or I can say things and I know people will hit the heart or like it or retweet it, but I don't know ... when do I get to have the conversation then with someone who might disagree with that statement, you know? We can delete that person or block that person pretty easily now, but when am I gonna sort of have the courage to sit next to that person and say, "Why do you think that? I want to know why, and I'm going to listen to you," as opposed to just getting really upset about it and not listening, shutting down, which I do. I think that's the piece about empathy ... We ask kids to put themselves in other people's shoes all the time. We talk about this in Upstanders. I really don't think you can do that until you understand first your own identity and where you're coming from.
And then you start to look at another layer, and that's how people see you, and then you open yourself up to see the humanity in someone else and say, "Well, jeez, they're coming from a completely different experience and identity than I am." And that's when you start to develop empathy, right, you get proximate to the person, you get proximate to the story, you get proximate to a book. It's what you do with that. I think that's what fosters empathy. It's not just, "I can read a book and put it down and I have this empathy."
We invite you to listen to last week’s special edition of the podcast where Sara shares a personal story of Being the Change:
You can also download the sample chapter from Being the Change on Heinemann.com and check out blog.Heinemann.com where we’ll be posting more from Sara.
Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed.