People in conversation

Craving Conversation in Schools

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

After Horacio Moreno observed a dialogue I facilitated with his students at a public high school in Buenos Aires, he helped me place what had just happened in a context I hadn’t fully realized was there.

“I’m going to use some of the tools you used in the dialogue,” Horacio said. “They may seem very common to you, but they’re unusual here. And you can see that they take the students by surprise. The way you say, when we go around in a circle, you can talk if you want to and pass if you don’t want to—they’re not used to that.”

The series of dialogues I facilitated in his classroom and others focused on a period of Argentine history when speech could be dangerous: under the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-83, more than thirty thousand people were tortured and killed. Even today, divides about the nature of the dictatorship and its legacy run deep.

I moved to Buenos Aires in February 2012 to research how Argentines born after the dictatorship learn about, make sense of, and talk—or don’t talk—about what happened. I was curious what people my age make of what happened and what space they have to talk about this history today.

As I describe in my last post, I observed classes in public high schools and shadowed museum guides as they led students through former detention centers. I interviewed more than fifty parents, teachers, and students. Of the many themes that came up throughout my interviews, one in particular tugged at my facilitator side: many teachers and parents told me how hard it is to talk about this history. “The parents of my students are children of the dictatorship,” Patricia Villegas, a history teacher, told me. “We grew up in terror. So how do we raise our kids?” Many students said that they learn about the dictatorship in school but need more space to talk about what it means to them.

During a visit to the U.S. halfway through my year in Buenos Aires, I participated in the Power of Dialogue workshop at Essential Partners. In my conversation with workshop trainer Corky Becker before the workshop began, I talked about how the question driving my research had begun to shift from “what information do students learn in school about this history,” to “what do students make of this history and of the way it’s taught in school?” Corky asked me, “Why don’t you bring students together for a dialogue and ask them?”

I hesitated at first. I participated in the workshop and then went back to Buenos Aires, still unsure whether it was my place, as an outsider, to organize such dialogues. I worried that people who lived through or were born into this history would think it was not my place to try to create a space for this sort of conversation.

My thinking changed over the next several months, as I continued to hear from teachers and students that this was a conversation they were craving.

Then I described my research to Pablo Lumerman, who runs Fundación Cambio Democrático, a Buenos Aires-based organization focused on deepening civic engagement. He told me that the organization has facilitated dialogues on a wide range of topics—gender, legal reform, the environment, and more—but never Argentina’s own history of dictatorship. The topic cuts so close to home, Pablo said, that every aspect of planning and facilitating the dialogues would be personal and controversial. But he said it’s time to create more space for conversation about this history and encouraged me to give it a try.

Pablo’s colleague put me in touch with one school principal and I reached out to another. I went on to facilitate four dialogues in a high school on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and eight in a high school in San Carlos, a town of 13,000, eight hours by bus from the capital. Both schools serve students primarily from low-income communities. I wanted the planning process to be as collaborative as possible, and I worked closely with administrators, teachers, and students to develop a dialogue structure that worked for each school.

My hope had been to co-facilitate with an Argentine facilitator, but that didn’t work out given the short time frame. By the time I started the dialogues project, I had only a few months left of my research fellowship. If I were to do this project again, I would make sure to work with a co-facilitator who had more firsthand experience with the topics I asked students to discuss.

In my next posts, I’ll describe the questions I asked during the dialogues and the ways in which doing dialogue in a school setting at first limited and then deepened my work. I’ll share students’ responses and explore a question that stuck with me throughout the dialogues: How does history shape the form education takes in the present?

When I asked Horacio, the teacher who observed the dialogue I facilitated in his classroom, why this approach to conversation caught students by surprise, he responded, “In part because they’ve been raised by people who, myself included, carry remnants of the history [of dictatorship] the students discussed today. We were once told, be careful what you say, don’t say this, you don’t know what will happen.” His students, he said, aren’t used to being asked what they think in such an open-ended way. They’re also not used to being able to choose silence in a school setting: to have the option of taking more time to form their ideas, to pass and then, when they’re ready, begin to speak.