Civil Like a Fifth Grader

As if the global pandemic and murder hornets were not enough, we have been inundated with media stories of adults screaming at each other and worse over basic safety protocols.  Now I do not understand why anyone would not follow basic health and safety guidelines to help us all stop the spread of Covid, but I am also appalled by how some adults act towards each other in public and on social media. Our children are watching!

It seems like we all need a refresher course in basic civility.

I believe it is the key to respectful interactions with others- especially others with differing points of view, and it is the very first lesson I teach to my fifth graders.

The first ten minutes of fifth grade are everything. Those are the crucial moments when I have to hook my students and set the tone for how we will act with civility as a community of learners in my classroom. I have heard teachers say that to do this, you have to establish authority, strict rules, and control. “Don’t smile until after Thanksgiving.” I cannot imagine a more miserable environment! My goal has always been to make my students laugh almost immediately (stories about my crazy teleporting cat, Jack,) then keep the momentum going with a brisk discussion about our shared purpose for the year. We do establish rules, but they are rules for discussion. Having ground rules for discussion in the classroom is not a new concept; empowering students  begins with giving them effective learning tools. I did not create these rules. In fact, Socrates is credited by his contemporaries as having established rules for discussion. I have been using these five rules for so long I am not sure where I got the inspiration, but it may have been Jeff Anderson. He outlines similar frameworks in his books Everyday Editing and Mechanically Inclined. My five rules have been honed over time, and they center around how to listen and participate in civil, interactive discussions where people with different points of view feel heard and respected. I call these our Discussion Rules! (insert fist pump) and each comes with a bonus cool hand gesture.

Discussion Rule #1: That was a good point by ______ when she said ____.  I now see that _____ … (hand gesture: point to the palm of hand)

Discussion Rule #2: I would like to build on what __________ said by adding ______________… (hand gesture: fists building on one another)

Discussion Rule #3: I respectfully disagree with ___________ about ________ because _________…(hand gesture: finger zig zag)

Discussion Rule #4: I have a question for _________ about _____________.  (hand gesture: finger hooked in a question mark)

Discussion Rule #5: Stay passionate and positive.  Avoid sarcasm, put-downs, and name-calling.

I usually start out by tossing a Twix in the air, catching it, then making a big deal about how this particular candy bar is the best candy ever and no one can possibly think differently.  This sparks a passionate discussion about what is the best candy.  Before allowing students to begin, I do establish a “no hogs or logs” protocol: no one can hog the discussion and speak more than twice before everyone has contributed at least once (no one may sit silently like a log,) then we all jump into our sugary debate while practicing using the discussion rules and hand gestures. Learning how to actively listen to another person well enough to restate what they said before adding your own thoughts is a difficult skill, but one that is crucial to learn before we dive into more emotionally charged topics.  This also sets the groundwork for powerful instructional devices like A Socratic Seminar.

A Socratic Seminar is a more formal discussion tool that depends upon prior practice with active listening. There are several versions of a Socratic Seminar, and the approach I use in my fifth-grade class starts with students seated in two rows facing each other across a table with other students lined up behind the seated students.  A leader asks an open-ended question. Each seated student has three tokens that they must use before they can be replaced at the discussion table by a teammate standing behind them. Standing students take notes during the discussion so that they can counter the points of the other team. Everyone must use our discussion rules, and points cannot be repeated. I use this technique whenever we are discussing a topic that students have had ample time to research in advance.  However, its success hinges on the ability of students to actively listen and discuss in a civilized manner.

We continually practice our Discussion Rules until the students internalize the practice.  I have even heard from other teachers that they carry over the practice to other classes!  It is especially powerful when ideas are exchanged and perspectives change. One day we were having an especially heated discussion about whether Richard Hauptmann, from the historical fiction book The Trial by Jen Bryant, was guilty or innocent of murder.  Josiah had opened the discussion with his opinion and evidence. At the end of class he raised his hand again and declared that after listening to the discussion, he wanted to respectfully disagree with himself over his earlier point.  At the start of the discussion, Josiah had adamantly argued that Hauptmann was guilty of murder.  However, by the end of the discussion, he not only listed the points in the discussion that had swayed his decision, but he also named each student that had made those points about Hauptmann’s innocence, and he had changed his mind.

That kind of careful listening takes months of practice using the discussion rules, but the depth of the listening and civil exchange of ideas is worth the time.

I cannot assign all adults a lesson on using discussion rules, but screaming at each other in public is pointless.   This is a time for increased compassion, not a breakdown of civility. If any of my students acted the way I have seen some adults act on the news and in life, I would be calling in parents for a behavior conference. Children are watching.  What are we teaching?

Kathy Powers has enjoyed 27 years of teaching students in elementary school, middle school, and college, and currently teaches reading and language arts to fifth-grade students in Conway, Arkansas.  She is a National Board Certified teacher and a proud member of NNSTOY as the 2011 Arkansas Teacher of the Year. Feel free to email her at [email protected].




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