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+Constructive Disagreement+Teaching

Bringing Living Room Conversations to the Classroom

A Living Room Conversation (LRC) is a model of sharing and listening to diverse viewpoints that can be easily implemented in a classroom setting. The model, developed in 2011, helps people with different ideological perspectives have productive conversations. Living Room Conversations have been held in thousands of locations across the country—in homes, libraries, coffee shops, places of worship, professional conferences, and college classrooms. The feedback we have received (with over 300 participants) has been consistently positive. Often, even participants who reported being nervous before a Living Room Conversation decided to host their own conversations after participating. The organization has 2-page conversation guides on over 100 topics, all of which are free and open source.

But how does it work?

People who plan to host a conversation select a topic, find a conversation guide that matches their interests, invite participants, and have a one-to-two-hour conversation using the conversation guide. The guide directs people through introductions and three rounds of conversation, only one of which focuses on the topic. We have been in or led conversations on many topics and in many different locations, but the conversation flow is the always the same.

The model works because it provides boundaries around a conversation, specifically through the use of conversation agreements and a series of “rounds” of conversations. After working through the introduction and two rounds of conversation, participants reflect on what they learned from each other and what next steps they might take based on what they learned. Perhaps surprisingly, people from very divergent viewpoints can have civil, respectful conversations about topics such as privilege, tribalism, climate, and gun control. This practice is effective in colleges and universities where differences in political affiliation, religion, ethnicity, and income may collide. It can also be helpful among participants who seem to share common values and characteristics but who, through deeper dialogue, come to appreciate in-group differences.

Below, we share excerpts from an interview among the three of us. Two instructors, Miki Huntington from Minneapolis Community College, and Rebecca March from Technical College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shared their experiences using the LRC model in their classrooms.

Jessica: How have you used LRC conversations in your classroom?

Miki: In my Race and Culture class last week, we held the first conversation in the Race & Ethnicity Living Room Conversation series. My class meets twice a week, and this was our sixth session. My class has 38 people enrolled, and they had conversations in groups of six. To prepare them beforehand, I had them do a self-identification essay, in which they wrote about their experiences with race and racism. Some of the writing prompts included, “What was your first personal experience in dealing with race or racism? Describe what happened.” And “Where did your parents grow up? What exposure did they have to racial groups other than their own?” I gave them each feedback with additional questions as follow-ups to consider. To my surprise, half a dozen students emailed me back with their responses even though I hadn’t asked them to. Then they participated in the Living Room Conversation. It all came together.

Rebecca: My students and I use the Living Room Conversation agreements in class when we discuss current events. These agreements include “show respect and suspend judgment” and “be curious and listen to understand.” I start every semester with the agreements, and I let each class discuss them and morph them by changing and adding to the existing ones. So each class sets their own agreements for conversations.

Jessica: Have you noticed a difference in how students interact with you or each other after doing an LRC/using LRC materials in the classroom?

Rebecca: When having discussions that typically would get heated, the ground rules seem to keep that in check. For example, in my class, we discuss identity, cultural appropriation, who gets to use the n-word, the H & M ad with the little boy from a few years ago. Students will sometimes refer to the rules when we are having these discussions as a way of diffusing tension. It helps students feel comfortable because the entire class has agreed upon the rules before we start discussing the more contentious topics. The students know what kinds of responses and behaviors will and will not be tolerated by their peers (not just by the teacher). Because they created the rules themselves, they have ownership of them. I think all faculty should use them—for any class. I don’t believe in “safe spaces,” but I do believe in comfortable spaces—spaces where students’ views will be challenged, but challenged respectfully. [Students] want to share in class, be heard, and be respected, and the rules help facilitate that.

Miki: Yes. After I held a Race & Ethnicity Living Room Conversation in class, some students hung around and kept talking to each other—they were energized by the conversations. These were substantive conversations that continued beyond the facilitated framework.

Jessica: How would you recommend other faculty use LRC conversations or materials in the classroom?

Miki: I recommend it, but if possible, teachers should consider participating in one first with an experienced facilitator (which they can do here). Having that experience as a participant allows the teacher to understand first-hand what their students are going to experience. There is also a question of timing. I think the third week of a course is a good time to do it because when you enter into a conversation too late into the semester, the class has already developed stereotypes and biases (about their classmates or the instructor). It’s more helpful to enter into these conversations with a cleaner slate and fewer expectations. Now, you also might not want to do it in the first week because it helps to have an underlying level of trust. Students need to feel they can share and be vulnerable, especially about something like race.

Jessica: What else would you like to share?

Rebecca: I think these conversations are an amazing practice to add to course curricula, especially now, when political tensions are high, and civility seems to have gone out the window. College students come together from different walks of life with little experience discussing differences. Students learn that they can talk with and learn from people with opinions that differ from their own. Sharing ground rules with their peers helps them navigate those conversations. Our culture needs more productive conversations right now.

Instructors can borrow tools like the conversation agreements to create a comfortable classroom environment for open dialogue. The LRC conversation guides help (1) teach soft skills like civility, empathy, listening, and respect for diversity, (2) address learning outcomes like critical thinking and communication, and (3) facilitate exploration of topics like free speech, voting, immigration, gender, and voting that relate to specific course content. These skills and experiences are useful beyond the classroom—helping students grow into more respectful and open citizens. As Rebecca March noted, we might not be able to create safe spaces, but we can create comfortable spaces using the Living Room Conversations model in the classroom.


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