Civil Dialogue: How San Diego school made it happen in 2020

The Francis Parker School used words of wisdom from its namesake, past election experience and a model for critical thinking and discussion that got students talking in a positive way.

Divisiveness and discord are byproducts of every election cycle. The higher the stakes, the more controversial the topic, the more conversation can turn uncivil.

Yet, there are some examples at even the highest levels – such as Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia – who have managed to rise above it, who can engage and then disengage and remain cordial.

It is those progressive leaders and their willingness to come together that can provide teachable moments for impressionable students on the power of agreeing to disagree without and moving forward.

At the Francis Parker School in San Diego, all students from junior kindergarten to grade 12, are being shown the value of meaningful debate and of recognizing truth vs. fiction with a curriculum called The Common Ideal of Character: Fostering Civil Dialogue in the Parker Community. In it, its students have received a hearty array of conversation strategies and skill-building exercises that can lead to more positive outcomes in discussions and research.

Dan Lang

“What we aim for with our students is not only are they going to be excellent at all of their academics, but good people, people that we believe are going to be the stewards of our democracy,” says Dan Lang, assistant head of Francis Parker’s School for JK-12 Strategic Initiatives.

“We learned a lot from the last election cycle. Because of the divisiveness of the country coming into our community, we knew that this election cycle would be the same, if not more polarized. We challenged our community to be countercultural. We challenged our students to have their own opinions, be thoughtful, not take their lead from what their teachers say, or simply agree for the sake of agreeing, but we wanted them to have the tools of how do you actually have a conversation with someone that you don’t agree with.”

More than just simply arguing the merits of Trump v. Biden or Republican v. Democrat, the school developed a thoughtful program – tailored to different grade levels – that put students in positions to learn about their feelings, to be able to fact-check and discover truths for themselves and be able to find common ground. With the help of several stakeholders, including a clinical psychologist and counselor and Christen Tedrow-Harrison, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, they formed a structure they believe became a model for achieving those goals.

“We planned a variety of age-appropriate lessons, both at the lower school, middle school and upper school level, aimed at giving students those tools,” Lang says. “It wasn’t administrators in the room making all the decisions. Our subject matter experts brought their expertise and helped us craft all the lessons. Students were having good conversation. Students were engaged in discussions where they were able to find a way to talk to one another, not just agree to disagree, but actually take up disagreement in a positive way.”

Taking a cue from Francis Parker

Many of the philosophies and guiding principles of this independent college prep day school, started in 1912, are driven by its namesake, Francis Parker, whom some consider the father of progressive education. Rather than focus on standardized methods of teaching, he believed in giving students a full breadth of education, including moral development, while allowing them to work independently.

The Civil Dialogue curriculum came out of both leaning back on the words of Parker and the overarching national political picture.

“Serving the needs of the school are really designed to meet the needs of the society,” Lang says, paraphrasing Parker’s words. “And we took that to heart. He said, what does our society need right now? Our society needs the tools to be able to talk to each other about things they don’t agree upon. Parker says citizenship is part and parcel of everything that we should be doing. So it pushed us back to our roots. What has to happen … so that when we reach this moment, our students are well-prepared.”

Having gone through the previous polarizing election cycle in 2016 and facing a pandemic plus an election this year, Head of School Kevin Yaley decided to forge a plan to give “faculty, students and our community the tools to get through this,” Lang says.

Building on previously taught lessons around respecting identity and listening to others, the school started to develop that curriculum. At the middle school level, for example, there already were 100-150 minutes per week in advisory time built into curriculum. But there were different considerations for different grade levels as well as meeting the developmental needs of each – most especially the youngest audience and the oldest, some who were actually voting in the election. They also ensured faculty received professional development before the launch.

They drew on lessons involving public figures who found a way to respect each other despite their political differences. And they let students be a little inquisitive and do some soul searching while trying to develop skills to handle those challenging moments.

“So, giving students the tools that when you find yourself on the opposite side of a point with someone, you can be curious or you can retreat into your own positions,” Lang says. “We’re always pushing students to be curious, because you’ll always be learning. And if you’re always learning, you will never be irrelevant to always be part of the conversation.”

For the middle school plan, the goal was to build the curriculum around four ideals: character, values, relationships, and identity. More than 340 kids got on zoom and were asked two questions: What are morals? and What are ethics? From there, they were asked, Where do you morals and beliefs come from? And then from those that they believed to be true, Are they true for me or because my family gave it to me?

“We’re trying to create as an environment where they’re thinking about their thinking,” Lang says. “can you pinpoint where you form your belief systems? Who has the greatest ability to shape your beliefs or opinions? Is it family, social media, books, magazine?

That then leads, as Lang says, to the most interesting question: Can you get along with someone who might have different beliefs? Almost all say yes initially until specifics are discussed. Then, they’re not so sure. It is those moments where the guidance from the school’s instructors, the librarians and those clinical workers really come into play – to better differentiate between truth and fiction through critical thinking and to better be able to respond productively in those moments.

“We try and help them understand how their brain works,” Lang says. “We talk a lot about the fight or flight response. When we meet someone that has a very different opinion from us, when our deepest beliefs are challenged, our brains turn on self-defense mode. Getting kids to think about that … I feel myself getting flushed in the face, I feel my heart rate, why is all that happening? They’re giving me the opportunity to say, hey,  if you pay attention to your body, you know that what’s going on in your brain.”

And while it might not change their opinions, it might change how they will react.

Some cool work being done

Lang humbly says that other schools and instructors are doing similar work and lauds the efforts of the public school system in the San Diego area. Along with college-level professors, schools are recognizing the effects and damage polarizing election campaigns and debates have had on young people. So how can they help?

Francis Parker School is not only doing work within its team to foster better outcomes but is trying to bring lessons from the outside to its classes. One of its teachers in its upper school, Phil Trotter, has brought in past students involved in civil rights and equality discussions to talk to current students about those topics through recorded interviews.

The school also managed to get opposing viewpoints from two elected officials- current Democratic representative Juan Vargas and former Republican politician Ron Roberts – to discuss how politicians can work together to make change happen. Teacher Chris McGrath helped get students in on the Zoom call to ask them questions.

“It was fantastic,” Lang says. “We’re not trying to not just talk at kids. We’re trying to get them to think, to form opinions, and then to practice and to look at people who did it successfully. And in this case, to even have the opportunity to talk with people who did it successfully.”

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