Tag Archives: conflict

Difficult Dialogues in the Classroom: Thoughts from Inclusive Excellence Series Workshop #2

This academic year, the Schreyer Institute is sponsoring a workshop series exploring the topic of Inclusive Excellence, or how college instructors can harness the power of diversity in their classrooms. The series is comprised of three workshops, the second of which was held last week:


In the workshop, we imagined the ideal class discussion (the one we each dream about), and we tackled some common issues, or “scary scenarios” that arise in facilitating inclusive discussion.

In this blog post, I wanted to build on some of the themes, suggestions, and tips generated in the workshop, and also post some resources for further reading on the topic.

First, here’s the workshop prezi:

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1. Cultivate a Sense of Community: It’s hard to stick your neck out in front of a group of people you don’t know – or worse, people you suspect might not care about you or what you have to say. In a class discussion, both teachers and students can have these feelings – sometimes simultaneously (crickets, anyone?). In the fantastic Brief Guide to Facilitating Discussion, Katherine Gottschalk gives some great tips for creating rapport in a class. In our workshop, I recommended the following: 

  • community.jpgSpend some time getting to know the students (especially their names!), and letting them get to know one another. Getting to Know You activities and Ice Breakers are clich� for a reason – they are often a quick and effective way to begin building trust and a sense of teamwork between people who don’t know each other.
  • Consider having students complete a pre-course questionnaire or a brief autobiographical essay for their first homework assignment – this can give you valuable intel about why students are in your class and what they hope to gain from their experience (which you can then use to design activities that may be more engaging and relevant to students). Ask students about their background with the material, how they learn best, or their biggest hope/greatest worry for the class.
  • Consider having students generate themes and topics for discussion – this increases the chance that material will be relevant to the students, and gives them a stake in the discussion being successful.
  • Build in multiple ways for students to participate (besides speaking extemporaneously in front of the entire class). Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of a large group. Short individual writing activities (like Minute Papers or the Critical Incident Questionnaire), Think-Pair-Share activities, or small group discussions can be used alone or in combination with a larger group discussion. Doing so gives students a chance to chew on the material and formulate their thoughts before being asked to speak to a larger audience.

2. Build a Safe Space for Students to Practice New Skills: Think about your expectations for the students and for yourself, and build a suitable space to practice the skills they need to succeed. 

  • SBTrapeze.jpgDon’t assume students know (or agree upon) what a good discussion looks like. Consider having the class talk about what makes a good discussion, and then develop ground rules together to encourage participation. Revisit or reevaluate the rules if needed as the semester goes on.
  • Allow students to rehearse skills needed for high-stakes discussions earlier in the semester, with lower-stakes topics. For example, a discussion about the banning of caffeinated alcoholic beverages like 4Loco would likely lead to a spirited (ahem) class discussion, and would provide an opportunity for students to practice constructing an argument, using “I-statements”, showing respect for others’ views, storytelling, and avoiding personal attacks. A discussion like this would be best-placed before one on immigration policy or abortion.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of warm-up and ritual. Give students an easy question or simple activity at the beginning of the class to get the juices flowing. Repeat certain activities regularly (for example: a warm-up activity, a Think-Pair-Share activity, a large group discussion, a summary of the main points, and a minute paper at the end of every class). Over time, these rituals will enable the class to spend less time on process and jump into the content more quickly.

3. Plan for Conflict: Conflict is inevitable in the classroom, but it’s not always a bad thing. Depending on its nature, conflict can add energy to a class, increase student engagement, and promote critical thinking.

    • Think about how you typically respond to conflict, and plan some strategies that work for you. If you know you tend to avoid conflict, then focus on coming up with ideas for how to revisit a situation later, if needed (a Critical Incident Questionnaire or a post-class anonymous ANGEL survey could be used here). If you tend to freeze up, practice having students write their thoughts or answer a Minute-Paper question while you gather yourself and decide how to move forward. If you tend to get defensive or respond very intensely in conflict, be sure to have some good questions in your pocket (“I’m not sure what you mean by that, could you explain?”) to soften your response.
    • In Working With Strong Emotions in the Classroom, Heidi Burgess from the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium offers great tips for de-escalating and resolving planned and un-planned emotional situations, like reframing an attacking student’s comment into a less personal statement, and asking the student to explain the reasoning behind their comment.
    • As we discussed in the workshop, it’s important to distinguish between a comment made while legitimately discussing and working through course material, and offensive remarks or jokes made to distract from the discussion or purposely alienate others. The intent of the commenter in each situation is different, and strategies for handling them typically differ as well. In Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Lee Warren presents several examples of finding the “teachable moment” in otherwise difficult situations. 
    • If a remark is made that is unrelated to course material, or is purely meant to disrupt, attack, or alienate, it becomes an issue of classroom incivility. The UC Santa Cruz Center for Teaching & Learning has a number of recommendations for handling student incivility. Here at SITE, we periodically have workshops on classroom management, or if you have a specific situation you’re dealing with, you can always talk to one of our consultants.


The inspiration for this workshop came from materials and presentations generated by the Difficult Dialogues Initiative. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, this 2-year initiative focuses on promoting civic engagement, academic freedom and pluralism in higher education. The Start Talking handbook was developed out of the initiative by faculty from University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.

The handbook (available for FREE in pdf format here) includes specific chapters on developing ground rules, facilitating debate, teaching about race, class and culture, reconciling science and religion, and others.

If you have thoughts or ideas about this material, or know of other useful resources, please post them in the comments section!