Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Resources for Penn State Teachers

NEW!!! For more information, see “Difficult Dialogues” 

In light of the tragic events continuing to unfold at Penn State, we at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence recognize that there are many faculty and graduate student instructors who, while experiencing their own shock, anger, and sadness, are also looking to help their students process these events in a thoughtful and productive way.

Teachable moments can be found in this terrible situation, and thus can provide much needed support and healing through the learning process. Destiny Aman, with input from a number of other teaching institute consultants, developed the following tips for teachers interested in incorporating difficult dialogue discussions into their courses.

  1. Set Ground Rules. Encourage students to practice empathetic listening, use “I-statements,” and avoid personal attacks.
  2. Start with a guided reflective writing exercise – give students a chance to write about what they’re feeling and experiencing, but also incorporate questions to stimulate critical thinking.
  3. To give all students a chance to participate, and reduce the chance that a few individuals will dominate discussion, incorporate think-pair-share activities, dyads, or other discussion techniques that allow students to talk and process their ideas in smaller groups prior to speaking in the larger class setting.
  4. To the degree possible, connect the situation to course material and learning goals (keep in mind that while this might not directly relate to your course content, such discussions do overlap with learning goals such as critical thinking, reflection, and peer-learning).
  5. Recognize your own experience and role in the dialogue. Do not respond angrily or shut down students whose positions you disagree with – this will result in defensiveness and have a negative effect on student learning.
  6. End the session with a Critical Incident Questionnaire, and follow up with the topic as needed during the next class session or via email.

Even in classes where course content does not overlap, the learning environment will continue to be affected as news breaks on a daily (or even hourly) basis. Many students are struggling emotionally and psychologically, and may find it difficult to focus on course material. All students should be made aware of resource centers on campus where they can find a supportive, safe, and productive space to process their experience. These include:

Counseling & Psychological Services
Center for Women Students
LGBTA Resource Center
Pasquerilla Spiritual Center

As always, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence stands with all who teach at Penn State, and especially now as you work through this difficult time. If you have questions, concerns, or would like more suggestions related to teaching at Penn State, we are happy to schedule an individual consultation.

4 thoughts on “Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Resources for Penn State Teachers


    The student-run media organization Onward State has provided some excellent coverage of the past weeks’ events via their webpage, liveblog, and Twitter feed (@OnwardState). Last week, student writer Dan McCool wrote a poignant piece voicing many students’ hopes about going home for fall break. This week, John Tecce followed it up with The Break that Wasn’t – an article about his difficult experiences over the past week:

    It’s difficult to expect our friends and family at home to understand what the past few weeks have been like for us, and yet, we can’t help but do so. Unfortunately, all they know comes straight from the news vans we walk past every day on the way to class, hoping that maybe tomorrow they’ll be gone.

    Both of these pieces provide some insight as to what many of our students are continuing to experience as members of the Penn State community. As teachers, it’s important for us to stay connected to these experiences so that we can attend to them if/when they affect the learning environment.

    In the wake of the events, many faculty have implemented reflective writing assignments as suggested above. Although some students may be tired of discussing the events openly in class (especially if course material doesn’t overlap directly), short reflective writing can still be useful at this time to help students air out tension or angst that could impede the learning process. Sometimes having fears or concerns heard about a difficult topic or challenging assignment can be enough to move forward with learning. Of course, the Critical Incident Questionnaire discussed above or other Classroom Assessment Techniques can give you important information about where students may be hung up, or what could be impeding their learning.

    As always, we’re here to help. Feel free to contact us to schedule an individual consultation, a classroom observation, or to attend one of our many upcoming teaching workshops. Our services are always free and confidential.

    NOTE: per SITE request, I have reposted this comment as a standalone blog post here.


    Faculty and graduate student teachers may want to let their students know about the upcoming Town Hall Forum at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, in Heritage Hall of the HUB-Robeson Center on the University Park campus.

    The event, hosted by University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), Council of Commonwealth Student Governments (CCSG) and Graduate Student Association (GSA), will be moderated by professors of sociology Sam Richards and Laurie Mulvey (see comment above on “A Classroom Discussion on the Week’s Events”).

    According to this Penn State Live story, the event “is designed to be an open discussion between students and the administration about the events of recent weeks and where the University should go from here. The student leaders want other students to share the opportunity they’ve had to get to know key administrators, including Erickson and Pangborn, and to hear answers to questions that trouble them. They also want the administration to have the opportunity to hear important messages from students.”


    In the coming weeks I will be collecting and posting tools and examples of how professors at Penn State and around the country are using the past week’s events in their classes – to promote both healing and learning. Here are two.

    1. A Classroom Discussion on the Week’s Events: This article describes a class session held last week by Sam Richards and Laurie Mulvey, sociologists and Penn State faculty members:

    “You have to live in the middle of this contradiction,” Richards said. “You have to live in this zone where both [situations] can be true, and it’s very, very, very difficult. But part of becoming a thinker is to sit with two contradictory thoughts in your head and see them both as being true. And not go crazy. And not immediately try to resolve them. And so we’re offering that to you. Sit with that. Because this is big. That’s big.”

    2. Deliberation in the Midst of Crisis: Resources page posted late last week by the Penn State Center for Democratic Deliberation, with tips for teaching about crisis, lesson guidelines, recommended readings to assign students, and even suggested discussion questions.

    “It might not seem like it now, but the discussions we have today and in the coming weeks and months will shape our campus and community—both in how we live together and how we are perceived. Penn State is a lot of things, but it is foremost an institution of higher learning, and there is learning to do in this midst of this crisis. In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, the Center for Democratic Deliberation urges instructors to devote class time—or to continue to devote class time—to structured conversations about issues important to the Penn State community.”


    In addition to the above suggestions, we will add to this post in this comment section as we become aware of further resources and events on campus that faculty and graduate student instructors and TAs may want to share with their students in the coming days.

    If you have specific resources that you feel would be helpful to your fellow Penn State teachers, please feel free to share them here in this comments section.

    Please note: We respectfully request that comments be constructive and focused on teaching. Thank you.


    Counseling & Psychological Services is hosting an open forum on Monday 11/14 from 1:00-2:30 pm in 205 Student Health Center and on Tuesday 11/15 from 6:30-7:30 pm in 105 Wartik to facilitate faculty, staff, and student dialogues about coping and healing in the aftermath of these events. See this statement for more information and resources.

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