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Integrating Civil Discourse in the High School English Classroom

by Christopher Denham - August 20, 2019

Civil discourse is a necessary component to a functioning society, but one that seems to be recently absent. This paper discusses the need for civil discourse education, and the key features of English and Language Arts classes that make them an especially strong platform for teaching and modeling civil discourse.

American students are entering a chaotic world, where facts, politeness, and civil discourse have been thrown out the window. Twitter has become the arena for political warfare. The media is labeled “fake news,” and offers radically different coverage based on political leanings. Shootings and disasters have become all too common. Politicians rarely use civil discourse. How can educators combat decaying civility?

English classes may hold the answer to revitalizing civil discourse.

In 2016, researchers at Stanford University, led by Sam Wineburg, found that only twenty percent of a group of 454 high school students were able to master reliable and unreliable sources, while 40% didn’t question whether the sources were reliable at all. And students aren’t just struggling to process incoming information—they don’t know how to have polite or productive discussions on topics either. “We’ve forgotten how to have these arguments that are respectful, that are substantial,” says Fred Hang.

Teachers in classrooms across the nation struggle alongside students as they try to find the means to model mature and effective communication with few resources and little training in teaching civil discourse. 

As a term, civil discourse came to mean the act or skill of engaging in polite conversation with the goal of enhancing understanding. Civil discourse is accepted as being focused on the issues, not individuals, and is productive, not performative. Key attributes of civil discourse include empathy, listening skills, internalization, respect for others’ opinions, and verbal communication skills.

Politicians have proposed cuts to civics classes, which prepare students to be engaged citizens. Research supports the benefits of civics education that teaches knowledge, values, collective action and skills such as civil discourse. “Many say that the increased focus on science and mathematics, as well as standardized tests, has squeezed out time that once would have been devoted to such courses,” Alina Tugend of The New York Times explains. Only nine states require a year’s worth of civics education, 30 require a half year, and 11 states require no civic education at all. 

When these classes do happen, they usually take the form of government classes, focusing on knowledge and values more than skills such as civil discourse. Eva Rifkin of City High School in Tucson notes that civics classes shouldn’t be confused with classes that teach civil discourse, saying that while civics classes “ensure that the average teenager can regurgitate how a bill becomes a law, they haven’t done much to cultivate civility.” 

Teaching civil discourse does not have to be confined to civics classes. But because of state requirements, Common Core Standards and teaching to tests, most non-civics courses are unable to spend time teaching civics, despite the critical need for civics education. 

This is where English classes come in. 

Civil discourse and Language Arts are intrinsically connected. The word civil can be traced back to the 14th century, where it means “concerning a citizen, his life, or his rights.” Civil discourse instructs citizens how to use language.

Most teachers can’t make separate time to teach civil discourse, but English teachers can teach civil discourse while teaching their subject. Many high school Literature and Composition classes are given relative freedom with the content they address, the discussions they facilitate, and the work they assign. The attributes of civil discourse—empathy, listening skills, internalization, respect for others’ opinions, and verbal communication skills—are already elements of English classes, and can generally be found in the Common Core ELA standards


However, teaching civil discourse through English classes will require a proactive approach. Teachers may need to adjust their teaching style and reevaluate literature selections or assessment methods. But the benefit for future generations will make the effort worthwhile; teachers should be able to see their students thrive in discussions of political and social issues, and furthermore, classroom discipline should improve. Education in civil discourse is an invaluable part of all students’ learning experience. 

Teachers striving to teach civic education can try strategies such as the following:


Choose literature that discusses multiple perspectives on controversial issues. Literature can explain different positions and help students understand conflicting arguments. Selections can be chosen not only for their academic merit, but for their civic value as well. Students can empathize, even with characters whose political opinions they disagree with, through good literature. As students read a story that is detached from their personal lives, teachers can model how to process incoming information and encourage students to do the same. Students will also begin to see, as they recognize what parts of the story resonated with them, the elements of effective communication, and include them in their own work. 

Literature that discusses controversial topics, if introduced intentionally and strategically, can be extremely beneficial for student learning. For example, have students read literature such as the classic novel The Kite Runner alongside formal essays such as “Custer Died for Your Sins” to stimulate a more nuanced approach to immigration conversations. John Allen Rossi, in his study Issues-Centered Instruction in Teaching International Issues to Low Achieving High School Students concluded that “becoming a citizen requires the opportunity to develop the skills and dispositions to make and defend decisions on these issues in rational ways. Issues-centered [education] offers the promise of moving us toward these goals.” The literature selected in English classes should cause students to think about issues in new and different ways.

Have students defend positions they don’t necessarily agree with. Teachers can encourage students to integrate communication skills with empathy and respect for other opinions by assigning them to positions they don’t agree with in class discussions, essays, or debates. One benefit of this ‘devil’s advocate’ approach is it helps students realize that both sides of controversial issues have legitimate reasons for their beliefs, stimulating respect and empathy in future conversations. Hunter Gehlbach’s article “Learning to Walk in Another’s Shoes” labels this and similar exercises as ‘social perspective taking,’ and says that “without it, we cannot empathize, engage in moral reasoning, love, or even hold a normal conversation.”

To encourage social perspective taking, ask students to write short pieces discussing their preliminary opinion on a topic. Then, assign them to write, discuss or debate the opposite side from their preference, or both sides of the issue in turn. A study by Laura Trujillo-Jenks and Lisa Rosen showed that students who conducted research for and defended a position they disagreed with had a much more developed and nuanced understanding of the topic. Requiring students to write or defend from a position they don’t agree with puts civil discourse skills of empathy, processing incoming information, respect, and communication skills into practice.

Introduce proactive measures that focus class discussions on issues and not individuals. Many teachers, at the start of the year, set rules for class discussions. These help run an efficient English classroom but also pose an opportunity for civic education. Students can discuss the measures and why they might be useful, and then practice using them in class discussion. Measures can include rules on volume, tone, or interruption and guidelines on vocabulary usage, which is proven to be a major obstruction to successful discourse. When students learn to use effective vocabulary and code-switching, they gain the ability to reach their audience with the message they intend to communicate. Teachers can initiate this by discussing with students whether or not slang should be allowed, how to phrase arguments, and how to refer to issues and not individuals.

Changing the style of classroom discussions can also facilitate civic learning. Traditional “Initiate-Respond-Evaluate” discussions, where the teacher speaks and then expects a response from students make the teacher the audience for the students’ conversations and prevent the students from experiencing civil discourse themselves. Instead, use “Facilitate-Listen-Engage” discussions, which act slightly different. FLE discussions have teachers set up conditions, such as giving students the question to address, and instructing them to ask each other. Teachers listen to the discourse, but the students’ audience is their peers. Teachers only engage when the conversation can be more productive or respectful, offering a suggestion on how to cultivate that productivity and respect. FLE discussions allow students to practice civil discourse in a controlled environment.

Use realistic, authentic assessment. A test can remind students of the definition of civil discourse, but only real-life applications show whether they can put it in practice. Researchers have found that tests mainly measure knowledge, but ignore skills, while assessment that forces students to respond to practical scenarios requires students to integrate skills with knowledge and write for an audience other than the teacher. When teaching civil discourse, authentic assessment is critical as it bridges the gap between the classroom and real life. 

Authentic assessment that pairs English with civil discourse exercises could take the form of interviews, letters to congressional representatives or editors, or presentations. For example, a unit on George Orwell’s 1984 could set up a debate on modern-day internet privacy, and students could be graded on their ability to construct and communicate an argument. Use literature to prompt real-world issues and problems, and then ask students how they would respond, applying knowledge using the skills they have learned. The goal, ultimately, is to create assessment that “replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are ‘tested’ in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life,” says Grant Wiggins. Authentic assessment encourages students to take the civil discourse they are learning in the classroom and engage it in real life.


High school English teachers have a valuable opportunity to teach civil discourse alongside literature and composition. Students face controversial and high stakes issues at a young age, and providing them the skills to respond needs to be a high priority for schools and the national education system. English teachers can implement practices today that teach civil discourse at the same time as literature and composition. Empathy, processing information, listening, constructing an argument, communication, and respect are all skills that develop a student’s ability to engage in civil discourse and simultaneously engage elements of the Common Core State Standards. By integrating civil discourse into English high school classes, teachers can prepare students with the skills to make the most of their citizenship.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 20, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23055, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:39:03 PM

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