Our Impact on Civility at the Community Level

BY DAVID A. GAMBERG/School Administrator, April 2018

Superintendent David Gamberg observes a student-led class meeting in which students learn civil discourse.
We all can recall graphic images of terrorist attacks — some of the most despicable examples of the breakdown of civility in our society. For those like me in the New York City area, they are local as well as global. These inhumane acts permeate the hearts and minds of everyone connected to schools, inside and outside the classroom.

As education leaders, we confront myriad challenges as we strive to raise academic achievement, ensure the social and emotional well-being of our students and ultimately create pathways for a diverse population to succeed in school and beyond.

Yet regardless where we engage with our students — whether rural, suburban or urban settings — the tone of the public discussions around social, political and economic conditions in the larger society always will influence what takes place in our schools and classrooms.

Promoting Dialogue
In my 30 years in education, I have witnessed an overall decline in the civil discourse in society at large. My sense is people care less about one another than they used to. Whether it is a discussion of issues in and around school or a simple exchange with someone in a grocery store checkout line, impolite, insensitive and hostile comments are finding their way into discourse in ways never before experienced in society.

As leaders of school systems, we not only set policy, we have a responsibility to create opportunities for our students and staff members to promote civic dialogue and civility. This starts in the classroom, extends to the schoolhouse as a whole, resides in school board meetings and goes beyond the boundaries of our districts into the larger community.

We do not need any commercially prepared and packaged programs or schoolwide assemblies to promote civil dialogue. There is tremendous power in setting an example. I have worked closely with elementary school teachers to implement weekly student-led class meetings. Teachers model civil dialogue as students share compliments, apologies and gratitude with one another on a regular basis.

Student-led class meetings instill a consistent process of civil discourse and prepare our students for their roles as citizens. These meetings, along with Socratic seminars, book discussions and day-to-day exchanges between child and adult, promote a more civil tone in our schools.

High school students in both Greenport and Southold Union Free School Districts, neighboring districts on Long Island, produce a weekly video broadcast that’s available electronically to the school community and anyone beyond. We advise these students to be mindful of the messages they send when they produce and communicate stories about school life and student issues. The digital footprint they leave becomes the narrative of our community.

The value of this medium lies not only with educating the students in civil discourse, it also involves the school and community in civic engagement. When we broadcast a story that shows students picking produce at local farms to feed those in need, viewers learn empathy and compassion in tangible terms. When we broadcast a tribute to a beloved basketball coach who died unexpectedly of a heart attack, we help the whole student body heal and process a devastating personal loss. Because the coach touched so many beyond those on the team, the broadcast also invited many more students, staff and families to better handle this sensitive moment in school life.

We are creating a canvas that invites others to become a part of the picture. By sharing their thoughts, they practice civil discourse in fitting ways.

Informed Citizenry
In our rush to produce and consume information, we sometimes sacrifice not only the quality that comes with carefully chosen words and ideas, we also risk being rude or offensive to others who may disagree with or misinterpret our point of view.

Thoughtful written and spoken communication, as well as a capacity to listen to others, are learned skills. Educators have an obligation to use every teachable moment — with and without technology — to develop in students and staff a keen understanding of the need for civil communication.

The strength of our democracy lies with an informed citizenry, one that is ready, willing and able to debate topics with reason and sensitivity to each other’s point of view. Regardless of the platform or medium we use — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, text message, e-mail — the manner all of us communicate going forward will be influenced significantly by how we have modeled these values to our students, their families and the communities that we lead.

DAVID GAMBERG is superintendent of the neighboring Greenport Union Free School District in Greenport, N.Y., and Southold Union Free School District in Southold, N.Y. Twitter: @dgamberg