A group of teachers and students stand in a circle.
Teachers and students at the May 2023 retreat for the National Oratory Fellows.

Civil Discourse: Communicating and Listening to Create a Compassionate Culture

3 min read

A Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow reflects on challenging yet caring conversations in her work as a fellow.

I vividly remember sitting in a classroom 14 years ago, a wide-eyed future educator, dreaming of the day when I would be the teacher. Students would be engaged in discussions about the latest book they read, analyzing every detail while forging connections, even racing home to share their favorite parts. Parents would be overjoyed that finally, their child had developed a love of reading because they saw themselves on the pages, felt themselves in the prose. Fast-forward to 2023, and that dream has come true, but still remains.

As a Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellow, I work with educators from across the nation to help students find and develop their voices as public speakers and writers. Part of that work includes teaching the concept of civil discourse, which is being able to articulate personal views while being a respectful listener of differing perspectives. With our students, we model how to communicate without being critical, listen without loathing and debate without denying.

To achieve these goals, I begin the year with students working in small groups to identify what discourse is and how it looks. Once learners create a general list of rules in their groups, we share out to create Classroom Rules for Civil Discourse that guide our interactions and discussions throughout the year. This year, our rules included being patient in conversations, listening to everyone’s entire argument and taking into consideration the speaker’s circumstances. By having this reference point and agreed upon boundaries for challenging conversations, students learn to hold each other, and themselves, accountable for their thoughts and ideas.

Several pieces of paper attached to a wall, with words related to oratory.
Ideas from a National Oratory Fellowship retreat.

Brave spaces are ignited where conversations can be held and opinions can be shared, especially in the face of disagreements. Can this be challenging? Absolutely. Yet it’s important and necessary work that even the adults in the room can benefit from being reminded of.

“Brave spaces are ignited where conversations can be held and opinions can be shared, especially in the face of disagreements.”

Often, an open discussion between two individuals who actively listen to one another, free from judgement, could alleviate the tension in elevated situations. Opening the avenue for conversation and being willing to listen is the first step in working together and understanding differing perspectives. As individuals, we can begin by informing ourselves on current events and issues displayed in popular young adult literature and researching authors themselves to engage in informed discussion. By doing so, we practice what we teach to our youngest learners, which is how to express their thoughts in a polite manner while holding challenging conversations, and modeling what it means to create a culture of compassion and gain knowledge and understanding outside of our own views.

Since joining the National Oratory Fellowship program, I have learned how to create space effectively and intentionally for civil discourse in my classroom, regardless of the topic. My students put in the challenging work to build their viewpoints through credible sources to establish ethos, share their views in an appropriate manner utilizing podium points and acknowledge that the opinions and values of others hold equal value to their own. Through civil discourse, we can better understand one another and learn more about ourselves along the way.

Resources for Teaching Civil Discourse in the Classroom:

Applications are open now through March 29, 2024 for the 2024-2025 Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Fellowship program. Apply here.

Lauren Baxter is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher at Cocalico Middle School in Denver, Pennsylvania.

Lauren Baxter is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher at Cocalico Middle School in Denver, Pennsylvania.

Teaching and Learning

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