Tips for Keeping Control of Difficult Conversations in Virtual Classrooms

November 05, 2020

While remote learning has presented educators with many challenges, one unique hurdle has been figuring out how to keep control of student conversations on tough or timely topics. Virtual classrooms have made it much harder to maintain respectful, engaged dialogue when students are not physically in the room together or abiding by typical in-person classroom rules or norms.

To provide you with tools and strategies for keeping control of difficult conversations in virtual classrooms, we recently partnered with Share My Lesson on a free webinar to provide tips. If you missed it, you can watch the full recording, access our free videos and guides for teaching controversial issues, and explore the highlights below:

Laying the Groundwork

Teaching controversial issues should not occur "off the cuff". Successful discussions require preparation and the use of thoughtfully selected teaching strategies. In the preparation process, you should clarify your goals for having these discussions and the skills you want students to gain. This can help you better communicate with families, administrators, and other stakeholders about your plans. And teaching strategies create structure and a procedure to follow, which will help you maintain effective classroom management. They also require the use of texts that ground students' arguments in facts.

At least 3-4 days before your discussion, provide students with pre-selected articles to read and annotate offline. Assigning the same set of articles to each student ensures that they are approaching the conversation with the same background knowledge. For group work, students can type up their arguments, evidence, and work cited in a shared document with their groups, which you can review before the discussion. When students make an individual argument, they must be able to cite their source(s)! Doing so can ensure that the discussion remains academic, respectful, and does not stray away from the shared knowledge within the selected articles.

Parents “in the Classroom”

With students now learning at home, it is not uncommon that parents or other family members are occupying the same “learning” space as the students. With this new dynamic, parents may become more involved in their children’s learning experience and raise concerns about the content being taught. To help you work in partnership with parents and families, we recommend that you communicate in advance of discussing controversial topics and explain your goals and purpose behind teaching these issues. 

We suggest that you provide information about the skills you want students to develop, the strategies you will be using, and the rules you intend to follow. Rather than focusing on what the issues are, highlight your approach. In your conversations, reinforce that:

  • The goal is to learn and practice civil discourse
  • The learning is inquiry-based
  • Students’ statements have to be supported by facts
  • Creating arguments from evidence makes students more confident in their views
  • Supported perspectives won’t be labeled as “right” or “wrong”
  • There is a difference between critical thinking and telling students how to think

It is also critical to prepare administrators for any issues that may arise by informing them of your plans and ask if they have any concerns.

Setting Ground Rules

In a virtual classroom, you don’t know who will be in the same room as your students or what you might see in students’ backgrounds. Be sure to establish ground rules with students, and include them in the rulemaking process, to ensure collective buy-in to follow the rules and keep conversations civil. You might use an acrostic to help students easily remember these rules. 

Once students have established their own rules, you can add your own and create a contract that addresses topics such as:

  • Side conversations during the discussion
  • Making political statements
  • Consequences for breaking ground rules (examples include writing a behavior reflection essay, making an apology video, grade deduction, or you can assign additional work)

Emphasize Humanity

A key norm or rule to establish is to not dehumanize another person because of who they are or what they believe. They should be able to critique ideas, but not people. To allow students to see what they have in common before they see differences, you can run an icebreaker activity like “Would You Rather?” or any variation on Four Corners. Take a moment to celebrate students’ different experiences and perspectives to message that it’s not about being “right.”

Maintaining Engagement 

Be sure to remind students of the ground rules you set as a class periodically over the course of the discussion. [Remote Teacher Pro-Tip: You can design a special slide for your Zoom background that lists the rules to put up as a reminder.]

In addition to the ground rules, you can also establish discussion protocols to maintain engagement and flow of conversation. Some examples of those rules include:

  • Requiring students to come prepared to participate in the discussion, perhaps by reading a text or watching a video
  • Asking students to raise their virtual hand to speak
  • If they are responding to another student, asking them to reiterate the student’s points then reply with their own comment using “I” statements when expressing an opinion or belief

Enforcing timed responses is also a great strategy to keep responses concise and focused on the topic of discussion. As a discussion protocol, you can establish a certain amount of time (1-2 minutes) for a student to answer questions or make comments during class discussions. You can also assign students to be the class timer with their phone and use an alarm to notify a student at the end of their speaking time. 

The mute button can also be a useful tool to keep conversations respectful. When a student is speaking, keep the rest of the class muted, and you can require students to ask to be unmuted. If the discussion becomes heated and descends into argumentation, call a timeout, mute everyone, and assign them to do a “Quick Write” for 2-3 minutes. Especially when a hurtful comment has been made, utilizing mute can turn the comment into a learning moment that allows them to reflect on their words.

Taking Students from Safe to Brave

While safe and respectful classrooms can be critical to a student’s learning, it may not be enough. Safe classrooms can cause students to refrain from asking tough questions and sharing their views in fear of offending others. As a result, safe classrooms can lead to sterile classrooms where students may comment but do not engage with the discussion. As students grow to become active citizens, being able to engage in civil discourse about controversial issues becomes a critical life skill. And learning the skill of civil discourse cannot happen unless students share their views with honesty.

To develop an environment that supports civil discourse, ask students to be brave enough to:

  • Hear views that may offend them
  • Share how and why a view hurts them
  • Ask the “uncomfortable” question
  • Be strong enough to answer those questions
  • Share lived experiences with honesty
  • Listen and disagree without defensiveness
  • Question ideas and policies, but never an individual’s humanity

Taking Care of Yourself

Just like how students have their own biases and assumptions, you should also be mindful of your own bias and assumptions towards students and topics. And you should be aware of your tolerance level as well. If a topic is personal to you, ask yourself if you can hear opposing views and create a fair learning experience for students? If not, pick something else.

In the current political climate, there remains to be a significant amount of important conversations to be had and controversial topics to be discussed. However, you do not need to, nor will you be able to, cover them all. Instead, we recommend that you choose a few topics that you can realistically cover.