Is it possible for a school community studiously to avoid doing something, while at the same time training its students to be ardent and passionate in doing the very thing that the school seeks to avoid? What is the logic behind this reverse role-modeling, and how can it be done effectively?
These seemingly perverse questions have become highly relevant in today’s political climate, particularly as we seek to inculcate in students the motivation to improve the world in accordance with their own individualized visions. In most schools, teachers are trained not to be explicit in discussing their personal political perspectives with students, and yet stimulating activism and advocacy—the courage to gather data; develop an informed, principled position; and articulate it with vigor and pride—is a key component of our mission. The key to navigating this delicate challenge, particularly in high schools, is to empower the student body to exercise leadership, create purposeful opportunities for students to discuss their individual viewpoints and set clear ground rules.
At Schechter Westchester, we recently faced this dilemma most acutely in the wake of the National School Walkout in March. In our high school, many students chose to participate in the walkout, and many did not. Some teachers felt great sympathy for the particular causes for which the walkout organizers were advocating, while others did not. Our school community was pulsing with an undercurrent of discourse on issues that are crucial to the lives of our students—social activism, violence, gun control, school safety, personal connection to tragedy—but lacked the infrastructure to discuss these topics in a manner that felt sufficiently educational and apolitical. Students and members of the faculty knew that they had a tremendous amount to learn from one another, but we were challenged to figure out how to do so appropriately.
Enter student empowerment. Two students, one of whom had participated in the walkout and one of whom had not, were charged with creating a program in which their peers could come to understand one another’s viewpoints—without the risk of feeling attacked for their opinions, without the pressures of popularity and without the need for teachers to articulate their own political perspectives. The driving motivation was to fulfill our responsibility as an educational institution to provide a carefully moderated space in which to model respectful, constructive, civil discourse.
The outcome of this charge was the high school-wide program entitled “Student Voices After Parkland: Modeling Civil Discourse.” Eight student panelists—representing a wide array of personal viewpoints and worldviews—shared their perspectives on key subjects that were dominating the national consciousness, and audience members had the opportunity to ask questions and comment. The purpose was not to stage a debate or seek to change minds on these important subjects, but rather to demonstrate that a person’s own viewpoints can be enriched through active engagement with people whose perspectives differ from her/his own. Panelists oriented their comments around the following question: “What would you want somebody who disagrees with you to be able to articulate about your view?” The role of the faculty moderator was to establish clear goals and set ground rules. Audience members were asked to refrain from cheering, booing or otherwise detracting from an atmosphere of reflective listening and respectful interchange. Questions had to be genuinely inquisitive, rather than argumentative.
The panelists presented an impressive array of perspectives and a profound depth of understanding of these crucial issues. Students spoke openly about their viewpoints on controversial topics, employing a variety of rhetorical styles—just as professional commentators and analysts do, they drew upon statistics, history, emotion and personal experience. They questioned and challenged one another appropriately, providing their peers with an exemplar of the style of discourse that ought to characterize all civic institutions. Most importantly, they came to understand the power and wisdom of the student voice, appreciating that people can learn from the nuanced perspectives of those who disagree with them without undermining the passion of their own positions.
In a world in which individualized identity is crucial, people are bombarded with competing opinions and even competing facts and approaches on how best to address the challenges of society are in constant tension with one another, schools have a responsibility to produce students who have the ability to learn from others, devise informed viewpoints and advocate passionately for their beliefs. We are appropriately limited, however, by our inability to tell students what to think, or even, in many cases, to model the vibrant exchange of ideas that we are trying to engender. By empowering students to create forums in which they can fully engage in this passionate exchange of ideas themselves, and providing suitable structures and ground rules to assure an environment of respect and genuinely open discourse, we can successfully navigate this tension and fulfill a critical element of our educational and Jewish missions.
By Michael A. Kay