Academics
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Steward Adopts Schoolwide Set of Civil Discourse Norms

A collaboration with James Madison University culminates in 12 norms to guide classroom discussion.
Emotions run high in any given election year. A tumultuous 2020, however, saw particularly testy commentary surrounding the year's contests. To prepare our students to engage in meaningful conversations of current events ahead of — and beyond — the 2020 election, a cohort of 30 administrators, faculty, and staff collaborated with James Madison University (JMU) to develop a set of discussion norms to be shared in all three divisions.

"It's about how we have civil conversations with one another in a democratic society," Lower School Academic Dean Rebecca Groves said. "As we all know, discourse right now is not always as civil as it can be, so we have to think about how the Steward community can serve as a model for others."

Although the desire for a schoolwide civil discourse framework had been percolating for years within the Diversity and Inclusion Council, Tiffany Goodman, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) coordinator, helped accelerate its implementation with assistance from Steward's academic deans. The school was already well-positioned to begin a plan of action when a member of JMU's communications department approached Steward last spring offering to help create civil discourse guidelines for classroom use. Several virtual brainstorming sessions later, the aforementioned cohort, in collaboration with three JMU professors, generated plenty of material to work with.

"Coming out of that first meeting, we felt it was really important for JK-12 students to have a common language," Upper School Curriculum Dean Melissa Freed said. "We wanted them to know that no matter whose classroom they enter, we're all on a level playing field of how to speak, listen, and act respectfully."

The initial brainstorming went through multiple rounds of feedback between Steward's academic, curriculum, program, and steering committees, eventually culminating in 12 discussion norms. The final guidelines were introduced at a full faculty and staff meeting in early October just in time for the election, and printed posters (seen here) appeared in classrooms shortly afterward.

"The idea was to prepare for the election," Mrs. Groves said. "We also want to set long-term expectations for how our students, faculty, and community should communicate with each other in general, whether it's inside or outside the classroom."

Those expectations range from using "I" statements when speaking from personal experience to paying attention to nonverbal communication and potential biases. One of the key lessons the group wants to impart is that civil discourse transcends politeness and performative gestures. As in any rigorous academic environment, disagreements will happen. But whereas a politician's goal in an election is to win, the goal of a student in school is to learn, ideally in a way that prioritizes empathy and understanding.

"With civil discourse the goal is to better understand," Mrs. Goodman said. "But there's also space for students to make a point." That means cultivating a safe space where everyone can express their views without fear of judgment or ridicule, especially when those views don't align with group consensus.

"You don't have to change your mind," Mrs. Groves elaborated. "We all have our own opinions. But can you better understand someone else while disagreeing? Can you articulate your viewpoint in a way that helps other people understand where you're coming from?" 

We look forward to listening in as our students gain first-hand experience in answering those questions together.
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