Conflict, Engagement, and the 8th Grade

So, a few days back, my 8th grade class and I had a day of recovery after a test. As a junior high religion teacher, I love to poke and prod them with questions to try and goad them into actually engaging a conversation. Normally, I give myself too much credit for being clever and ask a series of leading questions hoping to get a specific tangent started. My success rate when I try to be clever is approximately 1 in 4, so since we only had one period to really get to it, I decided to go the direct route. Every class begins with what is called Bell Work, a short writing exercise while the class gets settled into their seats and I take roll. This particular day, I asked them to tell me what they thought was the most divisive issue in the world today, and why they thought people were so passionate about it on both sides.

I wasn’t particularly shocked by the topics that came up. Same sex marriage, abortion, immigration, politics, etc. It was all as I expected, honestly. Right up to the point, that is, when students were engaging people from the other side of an issue. Having spent the last few years watching the way adults have engaged each other on these topics, I knew what to expect. Name calling, shouting, or, at the very least, some heavy duty eye rolls and whispered mocking at other tables. After all, even the “unbiased” news sources normally have talking heads taking turns attempting to show how stupid the other side is.

Instead, however, I heard things in an impassioned conversation that I haven’t heard for probably about 6 years. I expected to hear, “WHAT? No, that’s stupid.” Instead, I heard, “Ok, fair point, but…” Where I was looking for things like, “Oh come on, you can’t really think that,” I found “I hadn’t thought of that.” I was expecting, in light of the way “mature” society handles these issues, that the immature pre-teens in my room would need a great deal of policing to keep them from crossing lines. Imagine my shock, then, when the students engaged in some of the most civil discussion I have had the pleasure of witnessing.

To be completely honest, I’d love to delve into all the lessons learned from my time with them, but for today, at least, I will have to settle for reminding everyone that it is possible to have a civil discourse, no matter the topic, and to hopefully remind those of you who may harbor concerns about the future generation’s quality or ability that there is a great deal of hope to be found there.

Next week, I’ll be revisiting this conversation to hit some of the things they reminded me are possible in these discussions. For now, remember, we are not required to debase ourselves or others. If our goal is truth and understanding, then we need to engage in a real discussion, respecting the other person and the insights they bring to the table.

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