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Discussions that Promote Societal Belonging

By Dave Stuart Jr.

They are a recurring nightmare in the United States, a horrifying symptom of some dysfunction in our culture. In the past six months, victims have been theater-goers, Sikh worshipers, and now first graders.

A big part of me hates writing this post, instead wanting simply to admire and affirm Jim Burke’s noble call to continue the promotion of human flourishing that teachers work at each day, to conduct the normal business that is our calling. I love this sentiment because it flies in the face of the opportunism that rears its head during every tragedy, whether it be in the form of East Coast stores profiteering from Hurricane Sandy or reporters eagerly interviewing children mere hours after the Sandy Hook shootings.

Yet, despite abhorring that ugly human desire to fixate on tragedy, I also feel that moments like this can help us develop students who flourish. Mass shootings, even in their expression of purest evil, can promote discussions that help our students find a place in society.

One key strategy that I use to promote what I’ll call “societal belonging” (i.e., feeling as if one belongs to society and has a place in promoting flourishing within it) is having my freshman students closely read varying viewpoints on an issue (perhaps about the inevitable gun control debates, or the role of the media) and then having them collegially discuss the implications of what they’ve read.

To promote the close reading, I create article-of-the-week style documents and I do the simple work of framing them, of explicitly teaching key vocabulary words, and of giving them some structure to help with composing a written response. In the wake of last Friday’s events, I gave them one article that I felt reflected the complexities and the widely felt urgency of gun control.

To promote the collegial discussion, I always have students write reflectively after the reading (sometimes, if the article is making an argument, I will have students use the template found at the end of this article (that template is one of many incredible things in Clueless in Academe by Gerald Graff).

Once they’ve written, it’s time either that day or the next for some discussion. Again, I like using templates to help students express their thoughts in thoughtful and clear ways (They Say, I Say, by Graff and Birkenstein, is the king of discussion templates).

The simple acts of closely reading and responding to several viewpoints on an issue promotes beautiful, society-strengthening discussion. It allows for emotion, but it also promotes the kind of thoughtful discussion that societal belonging depends upon.

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