Complexity in the Classroom: Case 1, Part 2

In this series, we offer case studies in classroom complexity. Race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, politics, socioeconomic class, canonical variety — you name it, it’s in the classroom. How can we diagnose and understand what is really happening in the classroom, and what strategies can we develop for responding? How do you allow space for diverse viewpoints? Address the personal experiences and beliefs of students and TFs, as well as multiple knowledge bases and skill sets—all while also guiding students toward mastery of course material?

Last week, Carla Martin presented a scenario and asked “What would you do?” In this week’s follow-up post, she shares how she responded to the situation.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there is no right answer to the question of how to respond to this scenario.

For the sake of providing one possible response, here’s a description of what I did and how the class handled the situation as a group:

When I realized how critical this moment felt, I knew that I would have to act quickly. Ignoring the comment was impossible — I had a policy, which I had frankly shared with the students at our first section meeting, that we would confront discriminatory or generalizing statements together and that we would do so respectfully, without personal attacks. Dealing with this statement as a group was unavoidable and an important part of our classroom contract.

So, I quickly sputtered out a response to the offending comment, something that went like this: “Ok, well, that’s definitely a belief that exists in the world….” After a deep breath I continued, “But the comment itself is very controversial and generalizes about two large, complex groups of people.” Looking around the room, I asked “Why don’t we put this statement up on the board and really dig into it? The only way that we can ever get to the bottom of what’s making us feel so riled up is to listen to each other and try to understand where we’re coming from.” I made eye contact with anyone who was looking, and got a number of nods and muttered affirmative responses.

Dig in is exactly what we did next. I wrote a streamlined version of the statement on the board and drew a line down the middle. We mapped out the different sides of the debate as a group, with arguments and evidence for and against the statement, a lot of which came directly from the course readings. One of the students, a math concentrator who loved to bring logic puzzles into our discussions, provided a few counterpoint examples that helped us to evaluate the social categories with which we were working and also to laugh. “What if we replaced Chinese with ‘men’ and ‘African Americans’ with ‘women?'” he asked. “Or Chinese with ‘kittens’ and ‘African Americans’ with ‘puppies?’ Could we draw the same conclusions?”

At the end of this exercise, the student whose initial response to the comment had been to slam his hand down on the table told the group, “You know, usually I hear stuff like this and I get so mad that I can’t deal with it, so I either pick a fight or run off. Doing this comment dissection thing helped me get a better sense for why these beliefs are so strong for some people.”

The student who had made the offending comment (who, much to her credit and the credit of her section peers, handled the whole debate gracefully and with good humor), courageously told the class, “This is the first time I have ever had a discussion about this issue with anyone who didn’t share my opinion. This is huge for me.”

That evening after section, as I reflected on the situation, I decided to reach out to my students one more time to see if anyone had unresolved questions or concerns. I sent an email thanking them for our heated and respectful discussion that day and attached a few short articles that dealt directly with Asian American and African American relations. I included a note asking them to email me or visit me in office hours if they felt like they wanted to discuss anything further. Over the course of the next two weeks, a number of students did come to chat with me; one even chose to write an essay about the broader debate for a later assignment. We also brought the example of our debate up again in section when we encountered related debates.

Do I think that we all left the section that day as best friends and happily skipped home over the rainbow together? No.

But did we become more empathic listeners and work, as a group, to think more critically about the complexity of the African American experience? I think so. And that was right in keeping with my goals as a section leader and the goals of the class more broadly.

What worked in this case? And how might it be applied to other cases?

We took a collective deep breath and dealt with the problem head on.

I once had a conductor in a high school music ensemble who said the key to performing well was both physical and mental. “Heart on fire, head on ice!” he would shout over our loud teenage crescendos. This seems perfectly applicable to dealing with so called “hot moments” in the classroom. Go ahead and feel strongly, as passion is enormously important, but stay calm, because keeping a cool head is what allows you to see all sides of the situation. I recommend taking deep breaths as well as pausing and allowing for moments of silence and reflection. It can also help to disasterize in your imagination—think about tricky situations that might come up and how you would handle them—ahead of time.

Thanks to our already established classroom social contract, we simply did not allow personal attacks.

On multiple occasions, I used the language “the statement,” or “the argument,” to refer to the offending comment. I kept encouraging students to do the same. I was worried that if we started saying “what she said” or “what those people think,” we would get into overly personal, emotionally fraught territory, and feelings would get hurt. The students picked up this modeled behavior like pros. While we didn’t have a big hugfest, we did keep the discussion civil, and that made it possible to keep it productive.

I, the TF, facilitated and guided, but the students did the work.

By standing up and writing on the board, I physically regained control of the conversation, but required students to generate the content. I relied on their comments to fill in the structure and outline that I designed.

As time went on, we kept communicating.

Just because section ends after 50 minutes doesn’t mean the thinking and feeling aspects of learning end when students walk out the door. By keeping the conversation open, we were able to keep moving our collective learning forward and to avoid some of the potential hurt feelings that can result from unaddressed grievances.

See Lee Warren’s “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom” for more on handling this type of Complexity in the Classroom:

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