Teaching for Better Humans

Written by Jacey Dexter, Elementary Principal on .

If you haven't see it before—and even if you have—I encourage you to watch Liz Kleinrock's TED Talk: "How to teach kids to talk about taboo topics," before reading this article.

Perhaps more than ever, parents are having to navigate tough conversations with children. From living through a pandemic, to political divisions, to social unrest, to gun violence and lockdown drills. Our children’s opinions are being shaped by the volatile and unpredictable world around them. Even if we are not bringing up all these topics at home, children don’t live in a bubble, and all of this leads to tougher conversations at an even younger age.

Answering Hard Questions 
When our kids ask tough questions, the best piece of advice we can give is to answer their questions openly, honestly, and in an age-appropriate way. It also helps to dig a little before you answer: "What have you heard about that?" When we make space for these conversations at a young age, it actually takes away some of the taboo feelings when those topics come up later on. 

“Accountable Talk”
One way we support these kinds of conversations at school is through Accountable Talk. These are classroom norms that we all agree on and practice ahead of time, so we can engage respectfully with each other on complex and sometimes sensitive topics. Here are a few examples of Accountable Talk sentence starters you can model and practice with children (or even other adults):

  • “I see what you’re saying, but I wonder if __________.”
  • “I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with that because __________.”
  • “Could you give me a few examples of what you mean?”
  • “That makes me wonder if/about __________.”
  • Paraphrase what you heard and ask, “Could you explain a bit more, please?”
  • “I haven’t thought about it in that way before. Where could I find more information about that?”
  • “So that I can be sure I understand you, could you say that in a different way?"

Stamped (for kids)
At school, there are some times when we want to spark more complex conversation, especially in social studies. This is a way to promote critical thinking and to practice Accountable Talk (plus research and perspective taking). As we return from Thanksgiving Break, our 4th and 5th graders will be taking part in an interactive read aloud of Stamped (for kids), focusing on the history of our country from the perspective of Black people, women, and other minority or sometimes marginalized groups. During this unit, students will learn to select, analyze, and discuss purposeful articles and resources to compare/contrast different perspectives and experiences. Another important resource they will be using is A Young People's History of the United States, which was a WHPS parent bookclub last year. 

These kinds of activities and discussions are a special part of our mission to create independent thinkers who can transfer these skills to their daily life. If it also helps our students engage in respectful and positive discourse around the holiday dining table, that’s the whole point.

These can feel like heavy conversations, but if you want some inspiration for how powerful they can be, check out:

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