Creating Space for Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

 

This resource explores many challenging topics and themes. At first glance it may seem like a lot to take on, but there are many benefits that come from creating space for difficult conversations in classrooms. When we create space for students to talk about difficult or sensitive topics they are given the opportunity to discuss important issues that impact their lives and hear perspectives that differ from their own.  

 

You are not expected to be an expert on these issues. As an educator and facilitator, the priority is creating a safer, non-judgemental space where students can share openly and respectfully, to minimize harm to themselves and each other. It’s likely that many students will feel connected to or affected in some way by some of the issues raised in this resource. It's important to remember that they are experts on their life experiences and their experiences will help inform class discussions and activities. 

 

At the end of this page, you'll also find additional resources and suggested readings on teaching controversial and sensitive topics and facilitation guidance and support.

 

Collective Agreement: Creating Safer Space

Talking about the issues raised in this resource may be difficult for both students and educators. Creating inclusive space takes time. Consistent use of collective agreements over time will encourage more voices to share. Creating space for students to suggest guidelines on respectful class discourse is a good place to start. These guidelines or agreements will allow participants to agree and respectfully disagree with each other and will affirm the diversity of identities and perspectives that each person brings to class discussions.  

 

You can start with a group brainstorm or refer to group guidelines you already use and add or change them over time. Guidelines created by students encourages them to take ownership of their words and attitudes and supports accountability to themselves and their peers. It’s always a good idea to review agreements before class discussions and to refer to them when they are broken. 

 

To create agreements, you can start by asking the group: 

 

  • What are some agreements, we can come to as a group, that would make you feel more comfortable to share your thoughts and feelings?  

Here’s an example of what a group agreement can look like : 

 

  • Everyone's an Expert: Everyone is an expert in their experience. If something is not true for you, doesn’t mean it's not true for someone else. 

  • Put-ups, not put-downs: No blaming. Don’t attack or make fun of other people. If you disagree, address the idea, not the person.

  • There are no stupid questions: Everyone is encouraged to ask questions about words, phrases or ideas they don’t get or understand. It's also important that we try our best to be respectful and refrain from using offensive language as best as we can.

  • Right to pass: No one should be forced to share if they don’t want to. 

  • Respect/listening: One person speaks at a time and actively listens without cutting anyone off. 

  • Express your emotions: It’s okay to feel... i.e. hurt, sad, bored, angry, etc.

  • Use “I” statements: Speak for yourselves and your own experiences

  • Relax and have fun!  We’re here to learn together and share.

1

1

Adapted from a ReAct workshop outline at METRAC.org. ReAct is a youth-led gender based violence prevention program based in Toronto.

Resources & Readings on Teaching Sensitive Content