Fostering Civil Discourse in the Religion Classroom

"This class has given me the opportunity to solidify the abstract concepts that surround us and communicate them clearly, openly, and with compassion." --Lovett senior enrolled in World Religions
For the past three years, Lovett has partnered with the Cloud Institute, an organization that focuses on ecological, economic, and  social sustainability as a way to inspire “young people to think about the world, their relationship to it, and their ability to influence it in an entirely new way.” Since Lovett began working with The Cloud Institute, 128 Lovett faculty have been trained to incorporate the Education for Sustainability (EfS) benchmarks into their curriculum design.

Veteran Upper School Religion teacher, Sandra Switzer, had for years wrestled with how to equip students to talk deeply and respectfully about ideas that many people find scary, sensitive, or taboo. She knew, though, that we can’t create a better world if we can’t hear, understand, and appreciate each other as resources and fellow problem-solvers. When Sandra encountered the Education for Sustainability (EfS) theme of  “Cultural Transformation and Preservation,” she immediately recognized it as a way into difficult conversations. Students need to understand the dynamic tension that exists in all human beings and human cultures between conserving what is known//tested/traditional/safe and embracing what is new/unknown/ innovative/ risky. They need to understand the potential for conflict and misunderstanding when individuals and communities struggle to maintain their unique sense of identity and practices as circumstances change. If they understand the psychology of change, they will be more equipped to manage their own (and other people’s) anxieties, which in turn can ease the potential for conflict and disruption.

Over the course of the semester, using this theoretical framework of Cultural Preservation and Tension, Sandra provided direct instruction and feedback to students on how to listen and how to speak in order to create a space for open and honest dialogue.

As the semester drew to a close, students affirmed that they had practiced the skills of civil discourse that will serve them well in college and in life. One student captured the class experience with these words: “It has been really interesting to learn how to speak with others with different opinions. I have learned how to responsibly and appropriately respond to those whom I may disagree with in a way that works and creates an uplifting environment. I have been able to learn how to be open to new ideas and expand my horizon.” That, indeed, is our goal for every student.

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