People in conversation

Teachers, Students Use Dialogue to Create Engaging, Inclusive Classrooms

Photo: Students in dialogue in a school library

“Reflective Structured Dialogue allows people to be their authentic selves and empowers them to hear different perspectives.”

Lynne Cote, High School Librarian

Newburyport, MA

A district on the North Shore of Massachusetts with 450 educators and more than 2,000 students, Newburyport Public Schools recently led an innovative, year-long professional development course based on the principles of conscious classroom management. The course boasted a hands-on, experimental syllabus that asked, What are the elements that create effective, inclusive, engaging classroom cultures?

To explore that question and evaluate the classroom tools that the course revolved around, 45 teachers and 20 students participated in a Reflective Structured Dialogue about the lived experiences of educators and students alike. They each had an opportunity to share their perspectives on what was working, on drawbacks or misses, and on personal challenges and successes, responding to questions such as:

  • Can you share an experience you’ve had when you were fully present and excited to participate in a class? Maybe a specific activity, a certain unit, a long-term project, or even a semester-long class.
  • Can you share an experience you’ve had in a classroom where you felt that things didn’t go as well for you? Perhaps this was an activity, a unit, or even a class that you found yourself dreading or spent a lot of time worrying about.
  • Based on everything you’ve shared and what you’ve heard from others in this conversation, what responsibilities do you think students and teachers share to ensure an engaging and respectful learning culture? 

“Reflective Structured Dialogue allows people to be their authentic selves and empowers them to hear different perspectives,” said Newburyport High School librarian Lynne Cote, a longtime EP collaborator and an organizer of the dialogue. “It’s unusual, broadly speaking, for students to feel like their views matter to the school system, that teachers will listen to them. It’s unusual for teachers to have the chance to be more open and human with students about their hopes and challenges in the classroom.”

The students were initially hesitant, said Cote. “I told them: these teachers have been taking a class about how to engage all of you, and now we need feedback. We need to know what lands and what doesn't work. You all know when teachers are really trying and it's just not hitting—they need to know that too.”

For many students, it was their first authentic conversation with a teacher. The prospect of giving them direct feedback was daunting. “But after they participated in the dialogue,” Cote said, “they were like, Can we do that again? That was amazing. Oh my gosh, this is so good.

Preparation and a robust planning team were crucial to the dialogue’s success, said Newburyport middle school teacher and EP practitioner Eric Schildge. “There are too many moving parts. You need the support of a team to make this work, so some people can focus on preparation and design while someone else tackles logistics.”

District leaders in particular played a key role as catalysts—first by encouraging the Conscious Classroom program, and then by having the vision to see how dialogue might effectively draw out the honest, complex perspectives of students and educators.

This dialogue—which will shape classroom culture across the district—is the result of a longtime collaboration between the Newburyport Public School District and Essential Partners, an effort that has made the skills and tools of dialogue part of the lifeblood of their school system. Educators, school leaders, and students continue to adapt and deploy Reflective Structured Dialogue in innovative and exciting ways. It’s helping them build a healthier, more connected, more effective educational system.