For several weeks my blog will focus on concrete ways teachers and mentors can help shape the future through their students. Today is Part Three. In case you missed them, here is Part One, and here is Part Two.
Ask anyone who works with young people, and they will all tell you that students have strong opinions–about what they like and dislike, about what is fair and unfair, about what is right and wrong.
And just like the rest of the world our young people hold a wide variety of opinions on these topics.
And just like the adult world our young people sometimes struggle to articulate their opinions and beliefs.
And just like the adult world the ability to debate and defend one’s beliefs in a civil, firm, and convincing manner is often sorely lacking.
And in the adult world this lack of meaningful discourse creates a society that can do nothing but scream at each other from our opposing corners with our blinders on and our earplugs in as the divisions between us grow bigger and bigger.
While I don’t believe that Neo-Nazis and the Black Panthers or the Big Oil executives and Green Peace activists are ever going to sit down and have truly civil discourse, there are a whole lot of issues and people that fall in between these extremes. We must deal with things like taxes and health care, the opioid epidemic and poverty, even neighborhood garbage pickup and backyard fence maintenance or risk a society that falls apart even without the help of all the hot-button issues.
So how do we prepare our students to articulate their opinions and beliefs in a significant, relevant, and eloquent way? Today I will share three suggestions to help lay the groundwork for this.
One: Make your classroom a safe environment to express dissenting ideas.
In addition to holding strong opinions, young people also have an intense desire to fit in with their peers. These two things can clash when a student holds an opinion that is different from his or her classmates’. It is not unusual for a student with a minority viewpoint to choose to not express it in class discussion rather than go against the grain and risk feeling ostracized.
It therefore falls to you, the teacher and leader of your classroom, make it a safe and open environment for dissenting opinions. Make sure debate is respectful. Never allow a student to be personally criticized for their opinions. Validate students’ opinions even if you think they are wrong. Statements like, “That is an interesting perspective. Why do you think that?” or “Tell me more about that,” or even “I hear what you are saying. I can see that you feel strongly about this,” are very useful even when students are expressing opinions contrary to what you personally believe. Use them. (Obviously if a student expresses an opinion that is racist, sexist, demeaning, etc. it is important to address that, but doing so in a firm but respectful, gentle manner usually has better long-term outcomes than a harsh response.) Regardless of anything else, make dissent accepted and acceptable.
Two: Give your students a chance to practice.
Class discussions are great. One of my favorite parts of Literature class has always been the discussions about the novels we read. If you use the right prompts, these discussions can help your students not only understand the novels better, but also apply the lessons in them to their own lives. That being said, formal class discussion time is not the only time students express opinions or voice their thoughts. How often does a student announce, “I don’t think we should have any homework today,” “Math is the worst,” or “Mrs. So-and-So is totally unfair!”? Make sure to take advantage of these informal situations too. Question students about their opinions. Make them defend their statements. Challenge their firmly held beliefs. Even if you agree with a student, play devil’s advocate. This everyday practice in a wide variety of situations will slowly make it second nature for your students to critically analyze their opinions and competently back up what they say.
Three: Make it okay to change your mind.
Often changing one’s mind is embarrassing because it means admitting that you were wrong–something that society often disrespects. Think about the great lengths politicians go to in order to appear to never have even misspoken to say nothing of flat out admitting that they changed their mind about a given topic. And think about how they are criticized when they do admit these things. (For those of you who follow United States national politics, remember the “flip-flop” calls of a few elections ago?) And the politicians are just reflecting the norms of our society. Think about the opinions you held as a five-year-old, a teenager, or in college. Are these opinions the same as those you hold today? Of course they aren’t. As we mature, as we learn more about the world around us and situations in it, as we personally change, so do our opinions. And despite what society seems to say, this is healthy and natural. Make this the case in your classroom too (or really, what is the point of any of the rest of this.) When you change your mind, don’t treat it as something shameful or embarrassing. Don’t hesitate to share how your opinions have developed over the years if the opportunity presents itself. Most importantly, try your best to make sure that being wrong is not something to be embarrassed by and when students change their minds don’t allow them to be criticized by their classmates.
That’s all for today. Please join the conversation in the comments section below!
Have a great day, and…
This Week’s Featured Product
Appropriate for a wide variety of ages, these 125 journal prompts are designed to provoke thoughts and opinions. They make great no-prep bell work and extra time fillers as well as discussion starters. For more details or to download this product, click here!
This Week’s Journal Questions
For the teacher: How do you encourage dissenting opinions in your classroom? What are ways you can do this better?
For the student: How do you feel when you are wrong? Why do you feel this way?
A Recipe from My Kitchen
Breakfast Treat Muffins
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons whole milk
- 1/4 cup oil (vegetable or canola)
- 1 egg
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
- Preheat oven to 400°.
- Line a 12-cup muffin tin with muffin wrappers and spray lightly with cooking spray. Set aside.
- Place flour, oats, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt in bowl of your mixer and mix until well-combined.
- In a separate bowl, mix milk, oil, egg, and extract.
- Add liquid mixture and peanut butter to dry mixture and mix until combined, there are no dry bits, and all the peanut butter in mixed in.
- Hint: The peanut butter will mix in better if it is warm. You don’t need to melt it, but if your peanut butter is very stiff or cold, you may want to microwave it until it is softened.
- Divide batter evenly into muffin cups.
- Hint: This is a pretty stiff batter that does not melt and reform in the oven. As you can see in the picture above, if you put the batter into the tin in lumps, you will have muffins that are more mounds than the traditional rounded-top muffins. I like them this way, but if you want them smoother, make sure to smooth the top of each muffin before cooking.
- Bake for 17-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean or with a few crumbs on it. Do not over-bake these, or they will be dry!
- Let muffins cool in the muffin tin for five minutes before removing muffins to a wire rack to cool completely.