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Strategies for Managing Difficult Classroom Discussions

During the fall 2018 semester, seven Tufts faculty members created a faculty learning community to discuss pedagogical approaches to teaching courses that centered race, class, gender, identity, and power. Group meetings focused on strategies to promote classroom discussions that maximize opportunities for learning, while considering students emotional and personal well-being when discussing these difficult and often traumatic topics. These meetings resulted in many shared approaches and strategies about engaging in these conversations. Below is a list of strategies and pedagogical techniques that emerged from these meetings. We hope you find this list valuable.

Group Members: Daanika Gordon (Sociology), Sarah Herchel (Graduate School of Arts & Sciences), Elke Jahns-Harms (Fletcher School), Margaret McGladrey (Sociology & Tisch College of Civic Life, Jayanthi Mistry (Child Study and Human Development), Silas Pinto (Education), Jean Wu (American Studies)

Creating a Responsive Environment

  • Think about the appropriate venue to address an issue
  • Transparency
    • Be transparent about your classroom experiences as an instructor
    • Be transparent in the beginning of the course about what you want the classroom environment to be
  • Setting Ground rules
    • Craft with students to ensure they take ownership of the guidelines
    • Be clear and lead discussion about “who ground rules are for”
      • They need to be for everyone
    • Talk about professionalism
      • Have students discuss what it means to be professional
      • Who is defining these terms?
      • Be clear about what terms mean

Strategies for Addressing the Issue

  • Follow-up with students in the moment of problematic comment
  • You do not need to convince students of a perspective
    • Ask them, “What does it mean for you to believe… (student comment)”
  • Acknowledge when students take risks and make themselves vulnerable
  • When student calls upon you to be more inclusive…
    • Identify and call out the problem, but don’t make students solely responsible for the solution
    • Ask students to help craft questions to deepen learning for the class
    • Take first 15 minutes of next class to reflect and short discussion about how to address the issue
    • Lead with “I perspective”
  • Consider using narratives as a pedagogical tool
  • For broader national/political events
    • Have students read different media outlets
    • Think about why certain perspectives are invisible
    • Have students post links about what is happening and is relevant to the topic
  • Try to create a reflective classroom
    • Reflect back what we hear from students
    • Gather what is being said in the room
    • Use motivational interviewing skills
      • Open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, summaries
      • GRE (Generating discrepancies, rolling with resistance, expressing empathy)
      • Use trauma sensitive practices
        • Listening, not judging. Don’t force students to relive a traumatic experience
          • Acknowledge it but create a space to come back to it
        • Consider trigger warning where appropriate
      • Note importance of framing and agency
  • Acknowledge the emotional aspects of learning
    • Include human elements of the discussion
    • Remember that what might be academic for some, could be personal for others

General Tips/Reminders

  • How faculty respond to a situation can telegraph a message about what is allowable in class
  • Ensure you are balancing different perspectives in class
  • Do not put too much of the onus on students of color to teach or respond to comments
  • Not everything has to be solved
    • Opportunities can be left to deepen learning
  • Create opportunities for students to provide feedback (Students can comment on canvas on how class is going)





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