The Power of Respectful Dialogue

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In my religion and social justice class, I usually begin the year by asking students to write about an unjust situation they’ve experienced. It’s a way for everyone to get to know each other, and it helps me get a sense of the different perspectives and ideas in the room.

Each year I find that my students are hungry to share their ideas, especially when talking about ways people are mistreated. After all, no one is more ready than a teenager to tell you about things that aren’t fair. This often leads to a healthy exchange of ideas, if students are able to listen to each other with respect. 

In one lesson, I talked about the Dalai Lama as an example of a “spirited activist,” someone working for justice out of personal religious convictions. I invited Paul, a student who’d visited Dharamsala the year before, to say a few words about his experience. Paul described the Tibetan government in exile with great passion. The room swelled with his energy. Then Sam raised his hand and disagreed with Paul’s assessment. “Well, I’m from China, and that’s not exactly how we understand it,” Sam said.  

I held my breath and waited for Paul to ride the waves of his own righteousness. It was an uncomfortable moment for me. But as a class, we’d talked about the importance of respectful discussion and put some basic ground rules in place. There was no yelling or name-calling. We agreed that everyone’s perspective is valid, even if we disagree. 

I watched as Paul inhaled and nodded for his classmate to continue. A discussion started. The value of different perspectives and experiences can’t be underestimated in this kind of class, even if it’s a little scary to facilitate. Creating a space where students can safely voice viewpoints helps the learning process and develops skills that students will use throughout their lives. Sharing a personal experience makes the work of learning more authentic for everyone.

The ability to consider various perspectives is the first step in critical thinking and problem solving. This skill is invaluable for developing solutions for scores of social justice issues. That’s part of what I hope to instill by teaching religion and social justice. In this case, it was rewarding to see that my efforts resulted in an enlightened discussion.

Harlan-Ferlo is a writer, chaplain and world religions teacher at a PreK-12 independent Episcopal school in Oregon.