What Makes a Great Discussion?

“I’m nervous,” Jennifer Macon tells me.  We’re sitting in the cafeteria before her English 11 class is going to have a discussion.  “This whole topic is controversial.  We’re dealing directly with race.  We’re not doing it through literature.  We’re going straight to the topic.”

The Race Unit has long been an integral part of the 11th grade program at Cleveland Humanities magnet.  As Jennifer points out, because the topic is such a hot-button issue, to have an open conversation can risk seriously hurt feelings, especially in a classroom as diverse as hers, where there is no ethnic majority and virtually every race in America appears to be represented.  The classes are always lively, but for deep, honest conversation, Jennifer works hard to establish communication standards early on.  “We talk about the way to speak and the way to listen,” she says and smiles, adding, “it’s a packet every married couple should have.  We do four days of learning how to listen, how to express being angry without attacking.”

For Jennifer, though the conversations are difficult, in her view they are the most important ones her students will have all year.  “We’re a privileged educational setting,” she says, referring to the magnet system that by virtue of its complexity tends to be incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated parents.  “Doing this work is what allows me to sleep at night,” she says.  “Talking about Gatsby is really safe.  This unit isn’t safe.  It’s about looking at their lives, about what’s really happening.”

The text for the unit is a packet of readings and activities, including an identity map where students piece through the various elements that have helped form their identities, questioning whether those elements are internal or external.  Students then are asked to self-identify as white, black, Latino, Asian or a group Jennifer has come to call “SAMEAN,” comprising people who come from Middle-Eastern, South Asian, or northern African groups that have become uniquely minoritized since 9/11.  If students are biracial or multi-racial, they’re asked to temporarily choose the group with which they most identify, then as the unit goes on, they get to explore the dynamics of their particular racial identities.

The groups change daily, sometimes a diverse mix of races, sometimes with each race grouped together, each group with a biracial sub-group.  The separate race groupings are important, Jennifer feels, so that students can process anger if they feel it without worrying that they’re hurting the feelings of friends of different races.  After the separate discussions, they come together for further discussion as a whole class.

It’s this unit, Jennifer says, that really stays with kids long after they’ve graduated.  Recently, they did an exercise called the Power Pyramid that physicalized the historic power relationships between races in America.  “One kid said, ‘I don’t think I’ll remember the Iliad, but I’ll remember this all my life,” she tells me.

When we talk before class, she’s actually slightly disappointed that so far the discussions have been “strangely nice.”  This year the kids in general have been “tranquilized about it,” she says, though she’s not sure exactly why.

But the discussion that ensues when I sit in the classroom a few minutes later is anything but tranquil.  She starts with a “stand up, sit down” exercise that asks students to stand up if they agree with the statement she reads:

Stand up if you feel more open about talking about race since the power pyramid.

Stand up if you’ve talked to your parents about race since the power pyramid.

Stand up if you’ve felt tension in your conversations about race since the power pyramid.

Stand up if you’re feeling any internal resistance to this unit.

With every question, students break into open, honest, very engaged discussion. The kids listen to each other extremely attentively.

But it’s the final question about internal resistance that really causes an explosion.  At first, only two kids stand up.  After all, Jennifer’s flat-out asking them to disagree with her, to tell her that they’re resisting what she’s teaching.  “If you feel any resistance to what you’re hearing,” she encourages them.

Two more students stand, kids who have not yet spoken today.  “Resistance is when you’re fighting something,” Jennifer says.

By now, about a quarter of the kids are standing.

“It’s not a strong resistance or anything,” says an African-American boy who hasn’t spoken yet.  “I like not acknowledging race so it doesn’t cause problems.  I just like living my life as ‘not knowing.’”

“I just don’t think there’s enough gray,” says a boy who has identified as SAMEAN.  “There’s this implication that only white people can be racist, I mean, this isn’t Mobile, Alabama here.  We live in multicultural Los Angeles.  This whole thing can seem a little inauthentic.”

Another boy says that, being biracial, he felt resistance to having to choose a race with which to identify.  “I didn’t want to choose one side of my family over the other,” he says.

“I had resistance,” says a girl with long hair and glasses.  “I want people to understand but I don’t want them to say they understand because they don’t understand.  I mean, you can say you know without knowing.  All my educational career people have been coming up to me and they’ve been like, oh, how is it for you, being black here?  But when people ask, I hesitate to share because then they think they know.”

“Really the hope is that you’ll have the language to explore it,” says Jennifer.  “It’s about finding the language to talk about this system, that’s why we use the Matrix as a metaphor, every day I’m asking myself, am I gonna take the red pill or the blue pill, how much of the truth am I gonna admit?  As a woman of color, I get made fun of by my husband, who’s a black man, whose friends make jokes to see if I’m going to understand.”

“Yeah,” says the boy who finds the conversation not entirely authentic, “but who are these ‘they’ we’re all talking about–all this talk has this elitist tendency.”  Then he takes it wide.  “This whole program can be elitist,” he says.

Here’s where Jennifer’s teaching is really extraordinary.  Many teachers, at this point, would object, outraged, and shut down discussion.  Jennifer and her teaching partner, Grace Oh, open it further, encouraging others to chime in.  A heated discussion breaks out now about the entire curriculum, with many students defending it.  “I really do like a lot of what we’re reading, but these are just theories,” says the boy who kicked off the discussion, truly distraught.  “When I google these theories, I find that there are a whole ton of other theories!”

A raging discussion continues in which the students demand and create a working definition of “theory” as opposed to “hypothesis.”  “How many other classes are there where students stand up and demand to hear the other side?” Jennifer asks dryly.

I just sit there on the sidelines, grinning like an idiot.  These students are so bright, so extraordinarily passionate, so brilliant, so respectful of each other…I’m not saying there isn’t profound and terrible pain around the topic of race.  But to hear these kids talking about it, so openly, with such honesty…on some level, I feel that the future is in good hands.

And I think: if one of my students ever stands up and tells me that he’s googled my entire curriculum, read up on it and thinks the whole thing is entirely wrong for reasons he wants to argue in front of the whole class, I can go home and die happy.

Two days later, I’ll see another extraordinarily engaged discussion in a very different community, Animo Leadership in Lennox, where students by and large are growing up with far less resources than the students here.  The discussion plays out quite differently, but is equally astonishing.

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