Friday, July 31, 2009

Civil Discourse and a Teachable Moment

While I try to make it a habit not to let this blog become a discussion on politics, I was struck with a thought this morning looking at my daily feed that I cannot get out of my head.

Two articles over the national news were brought to my attention. The first was from Politico's Alex Isenstadt, entitled "Town Halls gone wild". Isenstadt highlights the dramatic increase of rhetoric at what used to be a tranquil medium for conversation. Despite (or maybe because of) a solid victory at the polls the past two elections, House Democrats are facing more and more yelling, kicking, and screaming at the meetings, to the point where some are cutting them off. As those opposed find themselves in a smaller minority, they make up for it with increased intensity and non-civility.

Republicans have not been immune either. The most famous example is the now notorious "birther" confrontation Mike Castle (R-De) faced:

As you can see in the video, the trademark of this discourse is yelling, interrupting, verbalized anger, and a strong appeal to pathos only (some have said Castle was "hijacked by the Pledge of Allegiance"). Absent is any listening and consideration for another's point of view. Perspective is never mentioned... everything is an issue of right or wrong. This type of behavior is amplified by the 24-hour intensity on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, which feature many of the trademarks (check out an episode of the O'Reilly Factor).

Contrast that with the news of Gates, Crowley, Obama, and Biden having a beer at the White House. The meeting yesterday wasn't a Disney special... there was no magical apologies for the men who still have significant disagreements about what transpired. But what's significant was there was no yelling, no interrupting, and instead, quite a bit of listening. And each who came out of the meeting felt much more positive about the future.

You might want to dismiss this as a photo op, meant to defuse a tense situation, but the symbolic significance of the images from the White House have a lot of power for teaching and learning. Here you had 4 grown men coming together to discuss their matters calmly, in private. In a phrase, civil discourse.

The concepts of engaging in a civil discourse as well as understanding a different perspective are essential 21st century skills. And, practical measures needed to keep a positive culture in a school. My days of being a principal were filled with these type of meetings (sans beer), where a student, the teacher, the parent and I would sit and have a civil discourse about what was happening in the classroom. The best teachers I had would do this regularly on their own, and some who struggled a bit participated in many, some after bad flare-ups with email and 3rd part gossip.

To this day, I feel the most important component of a principal's leadership is the ability to listen, and that is what made these meetings successful. And like the four from the Gates' incident, we didn't always get pollyanish apologies, but we handled ourselves respectfully and came away with an understanding of where we go from here. And of most significance to me, the problem always got much better.

I think those of us in education know this innately. The hard part is helping teach the power of civil discourse to students, so that they help our society instead of hindering it. Here's the power of that image above.

Obama categorized this event as a teachable moment. Juxtaposing this scene with the scene from Castle's town hall takes no explanation. Which is solving problems? Which is the one you would feel comfortable attending? Something we can use in our classrooms.

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