Civil Discourse Harkness table

Fostering Civil Discourse at the High School

by Kirby Wiley, '10
It’s easy to shy away from discussions about politics, religion, and other topics that are potentially divisive. But at the high school, Ensworth students are demanding to have those conversations and pushing for more opportunities to engage with their peers. 
Since the founding of the High School, Ensworth has put an emphasis on civil discourse by incorporating the Harkness method and Seminar classes. The Harkness table is a way to bring students and teachers together to engage in face-to-face interaction. It encourages students to be an active participant in the classroom and to listen and speak with respect.
Through Seminar classes, which take place around the Harkness table, students learn about a myriad of developmental and social issues and how to engage in healthy discourse with their peers. At the end of the first semester, Seminar teacher Shomari White ’13 asked his ninth-grade class to share feedback on their first Seminar class. “We got to talk about things that are relevant to what’s going on in the world, and it really helped me to understand things better,” said one student.
This school year, a popular club, Project TALK, was also reinstated at the High School. Project TALK (Thinking, Action, Learning, Kindness) is a school-wide diversity initiative originally developed in 2008 by Ensworth students and Dr. Rich Milner, a Distinguished Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. It is designed to empower students to engage in difficult conversations with their peers who might have different views on important topics. 
“You learn how to talk about difficult issues at the Harkness table, but we wanted to push it beyond that. We wanted students to get real and engage with each other and say what they really, really feel,” says Milner.
In order to do that, Milner felt it was important that the conversations were led by students instead of adults. “I really had to push in some ways that it be student-led and student-driven, but also that adults wouldn’t be in the room as students were grappling with these difficult issues,” he shares.
Also this school year, an optional club called Honest Conversations debuted at the High School. Honest Conversations helps students refine their civil discussion skills, explore issues at a deeper level, and reach an understanding of others. As an extension of Project TALK, students must submit an application to become a member. 
“The idea for Honest Conversations kind of came from a conversation I had with Coach Whitfield after one of our Project Talk meetings with just the facilitators,” says Jaqueline Frist ’21. “We were preparing for a discussion about the election, but it was more about how people react to the election and what happens before and after than the election itself.”
Honest Conversations is co-sponsored by Ensworth teachers David Whitfield and Walter Schultz. “The two subjects people tell you not to talk about, religion and politics, Walter and I talk about every single day, and we don’t agree on anything, but we enjoy talking to each other,” says David Whitfield. “So, at a time when our country is so polarized along racial and political lines, we thought it would be exemplary if he and I co-sponsored this club together—that it would be symbolic of what we’re trying to do here.”
The goal of the club is not to come up with solutions or come to an agreement, but for students to be able to listen to one another, and gain a better understanding of why their peers might believe something different than they do.
“Kids should not be afraid to speak their minds. But they should be afraid to not let others speak their minds,” says Schultz. “If you want to speak your mind, you should be willing to let someone else speak their mind and to respect their opinion. That’s what fosters good, solid communication, and long-lasting friendships and relationships: the ability to listen and understand someone else’s thoughts other than your own.”
Jacqueline Frist, who is the president of the Honest Conversations club, hopes the skills she and her peers are learning through these discussions will better prepare them for conversations not only inside the classroom but in the real world, as well. “Everyone, in their life, is going to have to have a hard conversation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about politics, but someday, you’re going to either have to tell someone or hear something that you might not want to hear, and I think these tough conversations that we have, we need to be prepared for them. I think that it’s an essential skill in life to be able to have civil discourse and agree to disagree respectfully.”

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