Teachers’ Institute attendees participate in a deliberative forum.

Incorporating the Deliberative Forum in the Classroom

The following blog was written by Jane Herndon, Secondary Instruction Specialist with Madison City Schools, and a Teachers’ Institute 2012 participant. We’re reposting Ms. Herndon’s outstanding blog, originally written for mathewscenter.org in 2013, in honor of our upcoming Teachers’ Institute on September 15–16, 2016 in Tuscaloosa. For further information and to register, visit teachers-institute-2016.eventbrite.com.

Last fall, I had the privilege of attending the “Teachers’ Institute: Civility and Deliberation in the Classroom” in Montevallo, AL, with two of my colleagues from James Clemens High School in Madison, AL. While at the institute, we learned how to implement the deliberative forum in our classrooms. Through the guidance of those at the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, we were inspired to bring this method of thinking back to our classrooms.

I teach 11th-grade English, and the book Night is on our reading list. This book has such a powerful message, and I always wanted to do something bigger each year to stress the message this book sends. So when I attended the teachers’ institute and when we sat through our own deliberative forum to learn the ins and outs of how to conduct one, I knew immediately this was the vehicle to use in my classroom with the book Night.

The first challenge was how to make the content of Night mesh with the structure and purpose of a deliberative forum. While at the workshop, I was able to brainstorm with my colleagues, and we knew this was a perfect cross-curricular activity. One colleague was a history teacher, and with that in mind, we decided our forum would be centered around the questions: “What is our role as citizens?” and “Why should we care?”

To prepare my students, they first had to understand a lot of the history behind the book and the Holocaust. I had them break into groups of three, and then I assigned each group an aspect to research (topics ranged from life in concentration camps to anti-Semitism). This was simply to provide the students with a snapshot of history and a point of reference. Once the students completed their projects and presented their findings to the class, we discussed discrimination and what all that entails. I then asked them if it was possible to stop discrimination. This led to a whole-group discussion, and we ended class having not come to a conclusion with this question (which I had hoped would happen). That is how I then introduced the concept of the deliberative forum. I explained that we would discuss the same question (Can discrimination be stopped? If so, how?), but we would take it a step further and ask ourselves what our roles are as citizens and how much (if any) is it our job to care.

The students were definitely intrigued by the deliberative forum. I think they were curious as to how we would discuss one question in depth for an entire class period (96 minutes to be exact). They were also curious about the set-up. I had told them the day before that all the desks would be pushed out of the room and they would be sitting in a circle. I got a variety of responses on that, ranging from “Yea! New seats, no desks!” to “What? No desks? I don’t want to sit in a circle.” But when they came in, they were definitely interested to learn more.

With the help of the history teacher, our multi-media teacher (who also attended the workshop), and with our instructional partner who came to observe, we proceeded to explain how a deliberative forum works. I had prepared a very basic powerpoint using information from the Dave Mathews Center, and it really helped my students to see the rules and the information in front of them. For future forums, I might even go so far as to provide a “cheat sheet” of rules for them to look over during the forum as it progresses.

Once the students understood the rules, it was time to start talking. We opened with the question “How can we stop discrimination?” and suggested three different “solutions:” a laissez-faire approach, having more government involvement, or more societal involvement. These solutions actually came from the practice deliberative forum we did at the workshop where our topic was on bullying. Luckily for me, these solutions fit equally well with the topic of discrimination so I was able to kind of tweak the information I had been exposed to at the workshop and make it work for my class.

As the moderator, I found it pretty tough to get discussion going. I think my students were just so unfamiliar with this set-up, and some may still have been confused about how to proceed. But once a few students chimed in with some of their thoughts, discussion slowly got going. There were several times I had to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand, and it definitely helped having teachers from other contents in the room. Since our basis for the forum was rooted in Night, it helped having a history teacher there to clarify some of the history details I wasn’t absolutely sure about. It also helped having the multi-media teacher and the instructional partner present because they were just another voice helping me to moderate and get discussion going when it stalled or back on track when it took off in another direction. It is definitely do-able by yourself, but I think the students enjoyed having so many adults in the room because they felt like what they were saying was valuable and they felt like they were being heard as we interacted with them. Just one other hiccup we faced was having the same students talking. Next time I do this, I may have to devise a kind of rubric to where each student must contribute something to the discussion.

By the end of the forum, I think each student was somehow impacted by the discussion. Some students were able to think about the book and the topic of discrimination and their role as a citizen in a new light. Some still wanted to discuss topics that were brought up at the beginning of the conversation. And I think a very small number of students still had trouble seeing other ways of looking at a topic despite the forum. But in all, I feel like it was a successful and different way of approaching a challenging question.

By Jane Herndon, Madison City Schools