Courageous Conversations: Facilitating Discussions on Difficult Topics

Spring 2019

By John David Bennett

On a Monday evening in early October 2017, I checked my email while on the short walk to my on-campus home. In the 11 years I’d worked at Mercersburg Academy—a boarding school in the Mid-Atlantic—we’d only had two unscheduled days off: one due to a colossal blizzard, the other because Superstorm Sandy had shredded trees on campus and torn part of the roof off a building. So I was surprised on that pleasant, partly cloudy day when an e-mail from Katie Titus, our head of school, announced that we wouldn’t have classes on Wednesday.

Exactly 40 days prior, at the opening-of-school meeting, Katie had begun a campaign of optimism, urging the faculty and staff (and ultimately our students) to accept the challenge and responsibility of having “courageous conversations.” Her gentle provocation came after 10 months that included a divisive presidential election, the shooting of House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, the opening of the Mueller investigation, and the Unite the Right Rally. With so much turmoil in the news, it was easy to lose faith and believe that very few people in this country and beyond were willing to untrench themselves and shake a hostile hand. Despite the reported discord, Katie talked about the “great faith” embedded in the values of the school, which she asked us to manifest through open, face-to-face discourse, especially when politics and circumstances could put us at odds with friends or perceived adversaries.

When Katie sent the email in October, the massacre in Las Vegas had happened the day before, and there were still fresh memories of torches and chants in Charlottesville; tensions with North Korea were on the rise; an earthquake had recently rocked Mexico City; wildfires were tearing through the West; and Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria had spent September devastating whole islands and American coastlines. In contrast, Mercersburg is safely tucked into quiet, idyllic Appalachian foothills, but our students come from 26 states and 40 countries. For our kids, including our South Korean students, our Mexican students, our students from Puerto Rico, from Florida and from Houston, from California and the Northern Rockies—their peace and their concentration were being rattled, and many of them were dealing with it quietly and alone. Our response, Katie decided, would be a day—Wednesday, October 4—when we’d disrupt our routine and give our students and faculty a chance to courageously process what we were absorbing through our screens and earbuds. Our method would be conversation.

By Tuesday morning, we’d assembled a list of 15 topics: climate change, the education system, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, gender issues, health care, immigration, LGBTQ issues, natural disaster relief efforts, North Korea, the opioid crisis, the political divide, race relations, the refuge crises, and the right to bear arms. By Wednesday, each of our 442 students had picked his or her top choice. Our librarians put together and posted LibGuides, which students could access through the Academy’s website. Our Student Life Office then compiled groups; found spaces for them to meet; and assigned teachers, college counselors, admissions officers, advancement personnel, and administrators to facilitate the conversations.

We, the faculty, also ranked our preferred topics. As dean of curricular innovation, I assumed that I could serve the day best by guiding the discussion about the education system, considering that I’ve taught in public and independent schools in the inner city, in suburbs, and in the rural countryside. But I didn’t get my top choice. I was assigned to the conversation about the political divide, placed there on purpose so that I, the adult, wouldn’t dominate the conversation. I wasn’t the only member of the faculty surprised by an assignment. Almost everyone was, which was unsettling for many, especially among the teachers. As experts in our subjects, not having the answers can unnerve us and make us feel vulnerable, especially when the students know more than we do. As the logistics of the day were coming together, Katie kept repeating, even in the final prep meeting at eight o’clock on Wednesday morning, that “your job isn’t to be the expert but to simply facilitate and manage the discussion”—and only when necessary.

Two colleagues—an environmental science teacher and a dance instructor—and I met with our group of 11. We began with a simple question: “Why did you choose this topic?” The young man who answered first had, the previous February, lingered after my English class, waiting to talk with me. He said that often, especially in humanities classes, he’d become hesitant to express his conservative views, especially after the presidential election. Seven months later, in our open forum, he spoke up: “I support the Republican Party,” he said, “which doesn’t necessarily mean that I support Donald Trump, but people have been vicious to me since the election.” To his surprise, there were affirming nods from most of the kids. One of them followed up his concern, saying that “conservative students are misunderstood.” Another added that “friends aren’t accepting me as a conservative,” and another admitted that his conservative views often led to heated debates, so he “need[ed] to work on ways to reduce conflict.”

The Democrats in the room, who were outnumbered six to four (with one student undecided) responded with as much surprise and honest curiosity as the Republicans had. One of the two youngest students, a ninth-grader, humbly disclosed that because she had grown up in a Democratic family, she had chosen “political divide” because she “want[ed] to understand Republican values.” Her thought was an empathic echo of a conservative student who innocently mentioned that “it would be good to speak to people with more liberal ideals.”

As the barriers in the conversation broke down, so did the dichotomous distinctions between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and conservatives. This began when one of the teachers, who had recently moved to the United States from South Africa, told the room that he still wasn’t sure what each party stood for, and he asked the students for clarity. As we listed the parties’ positions on the whiteboard, the students revealed more qualified, less polarizing points of view about gun laws, about issues that concern the LGBTQ community, and even in the abortion debate. What I was witnessing was the flow of ideas and the triumph of imagination that’s possible when everyone can genuinely check off the bottom two tiers of Maslow’s need hierarchy, therefore beginning the march, with momentum, toward a collective self-actualization.

I wasn’t in other rooms to hear discussions about other topics, but in Irvine, room 103, the desired effect of the day came to fruition after one question and only a few ticks of the clock. The contributing factors were clear: School leadership was paying attention to how students were handling the battery of bad news and the constant messages that encouraged a sense of “us” and “them.” Perhaps most fundamentally, students were given a choice, which is the first step in empowerment. And, finally, the kids in our room were immersed in a safe setting with teachers who were creating the conditions for conversation but not driving it. Consequently, the students felt that their questions were important and their wisdom had value.

The day wasn’t perfect. There were a handful of stalled conversations, and there are logistical adjustments that we can make for next time. Blowing up a class schedule for a day of conversations with uncertain outcomes can seem like an odd allocation of precious contact time, but, as Katie wrote in a letter posted on our website that October morning, “It is our obligation to seize the opportunities to challenge our students to seek to understand the complexities of our world and to empower them to think about solutions.”

Each topic group had three hours—with a lunch break in the middle—to plumb the resources from the LibGuides, talk with one another, probe counter opinions, and undergird their own. They then met with another topic group to tell them what they’d accomplished and to lay out the questions that still needed answers.

The day ended with the entire school in the Irvine Memorial Chapel and another simple question: “What did you get out of today?” After a few intrepid students stood up in their pews and took the microphone, hand after hand began to pop up. A couple dozen empowered teenagers, in another potentially overwhelming setting, felt secure enough in their courageous effort, among disparate points of view, to say what was on their individual and collective minds.
John David Bennett

John David Bennett (bennettj@mercersburg.edu) is dean of curricular innovation at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.