Teaching the art of respectful conversation

My friend and fellow TLN blogger, Bill Ferriter, shared the events and the thinking that led him to recently block someone on Twitter. Not only was the post classic Bill in its transparency and thoughtfulness, but also it required a courage we see too little of in social media. The courage to admit that rudeness is not okay, and that it is not only possible, but necessary to hold one another to standards of conduct.

As usual, Bill has hit on a real issue in the social media world that touches many people–judging from the comments to the original post. But the points he raises go beyond just the rudeness of people on Twitter or in blog comment boxes, and takes me right into the heart of my classroom.

I teach students ranging from 14-year-old 9th graders to 60+ year old college sophomores. One of the most important goals of my teaching is to help students learn how to engage in meaningful communication. Communication requires us to comprehend and analyze messages from others, respond to those messages, and share our own ideas with increasingly broader audiences in such a way that they will respect and consider what we have to contribute.

These lessons are hard enough to teach under the best of circumstances, but have become even harder in the current social and political settings that condone insult and personal attack as valid forms of discourse. I started my professional career as a journalist; I grew up watching Walter Cronkite and reading the work of great print journalists. My father (who was also trained in mass communications and journalism) and I used to watch and critique a cross section of news shows and news articles every day. Dad was the first to teach me to never get all my information from just one source unless that source was God–everybody else needed a cross-check.

Teaching students of all ages to be good writers means teaching them how to express ideas clearly, but that’s only one side of the communication. Truly good communicators are also strong readers, careful observers, and effective listeners. I sometimes ask my students directly: Can you separate personalities from ideas? Can you listen to someone you don’t like if that person has a valid point? Can you accurately summarize ideas in a printed or spoken text, even if the author is taking a position with which you personally disagree? Can you refute or offer a counterargument based on what another person actually said without making references to his/her mother or physical features?

These are important lessons for us to teach, and sadly, our mass media too often promotes exactly the opposite lessons. As teachers, we have a moral and a professional obligation to model good communication skills, including how to have civil, productive conversations that increase the learning  and maintain the dignity of everyone involved.

Thanks, Bill.

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