Empowering Immigrant Students Through Democratic Dialogues

Michael Pezone and Alan Singer

In his 1863 address at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Social studies teachers have discussed Lincoln's speech in secondary school classrooms filled with recently arrived immigrants and the children of immigrants for more than a century. But discussing a speech, by itself, does not make the ideas of democracy meaningful for students.
The problems and possibilities in preparing students for participation as active citizens in a democratic society are examined by a broad range of educators. John Dewey described an "organic connection between education and experience."1 According to Dewey, students learn from the full spectrum of their experience in school, not just the specific content they are presented in class. This means that in teacher-centered classrooms, they learn that some people possess knowledge and others passively receive it. When teachers have total control over classrooms-even when they are benevolent or entertaining-students learn to accept authoritarianism. If new generations of young people were to successfully understand, protect, and extend democracy in the United States, Dewey believed they had to experience a democratic way of life in schools.2

Michael Apple claims that rather than promoting democratic practice, traditional classrooms in which students rarely get an opportunity to express their ideas or to make significant decisions actually reinforce undemocratic values.3 Paulo Freire also challenges the undemocratic nature of a "banking approach" to teaching, and argues that continuous group discussion is necessary if students are going to acquire the collective knowledge needed to become agents for social change.4 Maxine Greene stresses that teachers must learn to listen to student voices.5 Listening allows teachers to discover what has meaning to students, and encourages students to take risks as they try to connect to other people and understand their world.

The ability to make democracy real for students in social studies classes is even more difficult when many of the students are immigrants from non-democratic societies-either political dictatorships or nominal electoral democracies that remain infused with authoritarian practices. This article describes an urban public junior high school social studies program where a largely immigrant student population explores the power of democracy, and the meaning of citizenship and community, through structured classroom dialogues on controversial issues. In this program, immigrant students practice democracy in classroom communities where they learn to respect each other, establish fair classroom procedures, share ideas, and participate in assessing their own learning.

Dialogue... not Debate
In his social studies classes, Michael Pezone (co-author of this article) employs many of the practices advocated by progressive and transformative educators.6 Pezone believes that the success of classroom dialogues and the experience of democracy both depend on the gradual development of caring, cooperative communities over the course of the school year.7 To encourage these communities, he works with students to create an atmosphere where they feel free to expose their ideas, feelings, and academic abilities in public without risking embarrassment or attack and being pressed into silence.
Pezone plays an active role in his classes. He stresses with students that the dialogues are not debates; that as students learn about a topic the entire class "wins or loses" together. In response to his own experience as a student and teacher, and to concerns raised by educators like Lisa Delpit that students from minority groups are often denied the "cultural capitaquot; required to succeed in school and life,8 the dialogues are highly structured. Pezone believes that structure maximizes student freedom by insuring that all students have an opportunity to participate. It also helps to insure that classes carefully examine statements, attitudes, and practices that may reflect biases and demean community members.

Pezone uses the dialogues to conclude units in ninth grade global studies classes; however, preparation for the dialogues takes place all the time. At the start of the semester, Pezone and his students decide on procedures for conducting dialogues so that everyone in class participates (see Figures A and B). They also decide on criteria for evaluating team and individual performance (see Figure C).

Usually, students want the criteria for evaluation to include how well the team works together, the degree to which substantive questions are addressed, the use of supporting evidence, the response to statements made by the other team, whether ideas are presented effectively, and whether individual students demonstrate effort and growth. These criteria are codified in a scoring rubric that is reexamined before each dialogue and changed when necessary.

Preparation for dialogues supports many of the social studies skills identified in Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century9 and Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.10 Students discuss collaborative decision-making, ways to support their views with evidence, criteria for evaluating their ideas, how to insure that everyone in class participates in discussions, and ways to guarantee that all people are treated with respect.

During a typical unit, the class identifies a broad social studies issue to research and examine in greater depth by means of a formal classroom dialogue. For example, after studying about India and China, students discussed whether violent revolution or non-violent resistance is the more effective path to change. After a unit on Africa, they discussed whether people from the United States and Europe should address the way that women are treated in many traditional cultures.

The goal of a dialogue is to examine all aspects of an issue, not to score points at the expense of someone else. Teams are subdivided into cooperative learning groups that collect and organize information supporting different viewpoints. The teams also assign members as either opening, rebuttal, or concluding speakers. During dialogues, teams "huddle-up" to share their ideas and reactions to what is being presented by the other side. After dialogues, students discuss what they learned from members of the other team, and evaluate the performance of the entire class.

Students Rate Their Learning
An important part of the dialogue process is the involvement of students in assessing what they have learned. In Pezone's classes, students help develop the parameters for class projects and decide the criteria for assessing their performance in these activities. The benefits of this involvement include a deeper understanding of historical and social science research methods, insight into the design and implementation of projects, a greater stake in the satisfactory completion of assignments, and a sense of empowerment based on their having shaped rules for the classroom community. Pezone believes that in democratic classrooms, "evaluation cannot remain the exclusive preserve of teachers. A teacher's exclusive right to assign value to student performance represents the most important bastion of authoritarianism. When students do not evaluate themselves, they learn the powerful, overarching lesson that in education, and in life, they must please and submit to the judgment of an authority figure."
Frequently, Pezone combines discussion of assessment with a discussion of social justice by presenting students with a problem to examine. In one scenario, they own a plot of land that is covered by a forest, and they hire two workers to harvest the timber. Worker #1 is large, very strong, and an experienced lumberjack. Although Worker #1 proceeds at a relaxed pace and takes extended breaks, this worker is able to cut down and trim fifty trees a day. Worker #2 is on the small side and has never done this type of work before. Worker #2 gives a full effort from sun up to sun down, but is only able to harvest an average of thirty-five trees a day. The class is asked to discuss how much a fair employer should pay each of these workers. During the course of the discussion, the issue of fair payment is connected to the question of how to fairly assess student performance in class.

Significantly, when given the opportunity to assess dialogues using a scoring rubric, students tend to be fair to classmates but also relatively conservative graders. In one class of 26 students, 8 students rated the other team higher than theirs, 3 rated them the same, and 15 gave their group a higher score. Among the students who rated their team higher, the average difference in grade was only 4.5 points. Among the students who rated the other team higher, the spread was 7 points.

Dialogues and Democracy
Pezone uses individual and group conferences to learn what students think about the dialogues, and to gauge their impact on student thinking about democratic process and values (see Figure D). Students generally feel that the dialogues give them a personal stake in what happens in class. They also feel responsible for supporting their teams. Students who customarily are silent in class, for fear of being ridiculed or because they aren't easily understood by the other students, become involved in speaking out. For many students, the dialogues offer a rare opportunity to engage in both decision making and open public discussion "in front of other people."
One student explained that in his other classes, "I don't have the guts to speak." Other students discover how much more they learn when other voices and views are heard. A number of students have raised questions about whether students should be involved in the assessment process. They have experienced majority injustice, and want the teacher to insure that democracy is tempered with justice and compassion. This concern provides an opportunity to discuss the idea of a political constitution, and the responsibilities of leadership and governments.

From the dialogues, students start to learn that democratic society involves a combination of individual rights and initiatives with social responsibility, collective decision-making, and shared community goals. They discover that democracy frequently entails tension between the will of the majority and the rights of minorities, and that it cannot be taken for granted. Genuine democracy involves taking risks and is something that a community must continually work to maintain and expand.

One benefit of the dialogue process is that it helps bring class problems out into the open for examination. For example, Pezone encourages female students to take leadership roles on their teams. However, this created a problem when American-born young women began to monopolize discussion, and immigrant students-particularly the males-withdrew from the conversation. When this became apparent, the students were able to look at what was happening and discuss ways that the teams could insure that everyone was included.

The dialogue process has worked extremely well with heterogeneous groups of students in Pezone's regular academic classes. The school has separate honors classes, and Pezone feels that the dialogues have been less successful with this group. Students in the honors classes tend to be more concerned with grades and less spontaneous in their responses to the other team.

Another issue raised by the dialogue process is the way that it affords students the opportunity to actively generate knowledge without relying on teacher-centered instructional methods. Some teachers find it difficult to step back and allow students to speak. They get nervous when discussions go off track, and interfere with and correct speakers instead of listening to what students have to say. Pezone argues that "teachers need to realize that in a democratic classroom, teaching does not mean control."

Michael Pezone finds that the year long process of defining, conducting, and evaluating dialogues involves students in constant reflection on class goals, student interaction, and the importance of community. It makes possible individual academic and social growth, encourages students to view ideas critically and to see events from multiple perspectives, and supports the formation of a cooperative learning environment. He argues that "students and teachers must overcome traditional practices to create more democratic educational experiences. Traditionally students submit to policies that are presented as fait accompli. But when students are able to analyze educational issues and to create classroom policy, they gain a personal stake in classroom activities and a deeper understanding of democracy." n

Figure A: Planning the Dialogues
Instructions: Groups should discuss the questions on this sheet and write down their ideas. While consensus is a goal, agreement is not required. Group members should be prepared to discuss their suggestions and disagreements with the entire class.
Names of Group Members:
_______________________________ _______________________________
_______________________________ _______________________________
1.What should be the rules for class dialogues?
2.How should students be assigned to teams?
3.How can the class make sure that everyone participates?
4.What makes possible a good discussion?
5.What are some good topics for the dialogues?
6.How should the class prepare for the dialogues?
7.Should the goal of a team be to win a dialogue? Why or why not?
8.How should individuals and teams be evaluated?
9.Should students be involved in evaluating themselves and others? Why?
10.Should students receive grades on the dialogues? How much should they count?

Figure B: Sample Rules for the First Student Dialogue
Choosing Teams:
Students will select teams based on their opinions. Mr. Pezone will make sure that the teams are mixed up so that all different kinds of students are on both teams. Some students may have to switch teams.

Procedures for the Dialogue:
There will be four rounds during the dialogue. Before round one, teams will meet together and plan their presentation. Students from each team will take turns speaking. In Round 1, five students from each team will introduce the team's views. After Round 1, teams will "huddle up" to think about what the other team said. In Round 2, students will take turns responding to the ideas of the other team. Teams will huddle up again after Round 2 to plan how to conclude the dialogue. In Round 3, three students will summarize the main ideas of their team. After Round 3, teams will meet again to evaluate what students have learned. In Round 4, students will discuss what they learned from the other team.

During the Dialogue:
/Students should respect each other.
/Students should not attack or interrupt each other.
/One person speaks at a time. Everyone must participate.
/After your turn to speak, take notes and share them with your teammates.
/The discussion should be as free and open as possible.
/Students should speak loudly and clearly.
/Team members should take turns. Don't speak too long.
/Teammates must make sure that everyone speaks.
/Some people who are comfortable speaking to the whole class should wait until the end.

Things to Remember:
/People must listen to each other.
/People must give reasons for their opinions.
/People must present facts.
/People have to believe what they are speaking.
/People need to talk about the things that other people say.
/Express your ideas clearly.
/Learn and understand the ideas of other people.
/Share opinions.
/Discussion is more important than winning. There are no right answers.

Student cooperative learning groups will evaluate the dialogue teams:
/Quality and hard work should both count.
/Grades are based on participation and effort.
/Judgments must be honest and fair. No favoritism for friends.
/People should get an individual and a group grade.
/Teams should get higher grades for working together.
/Teams and individuals will receive a number grade.

Figure C: Evaluating the Dialogues (Scoring Rubric)

Names of Group Members:
__________________________________ ____________________________________
__________________________________ ____________________________________
Instructions: Groups should discuss the questions on this sheet and write down their ideas. While consensus is a goal, agreement is not required. Group members should be prepared to discuss these evaluations with the entire class.
Topic: _________________________________________________________________
Grading Scale: Excellent, 10: Very Good, 9; Some problems but good work, 8;
Needs Improvement, 7; Needs major improvement, 6.

Part One - Answer each question about your team. Be sure to explain the reason for your answer. Assign a grade in each category.
____Was your team's point of view clear?
____Did your ideas make sense?
____Was your team well organized?
____Did your team use facts to support your opinions?
____Did your team respond to the issues raised by the other team?
____Did members of your team express themselves clearly? (speak clearly, use body language, eye contact)
____Was everyone on the team involved?
____Did your team show a lot of effort?
____Did the members of your team work well together?
____Did members of your team listen to other people without interrupting?
____Did members of your team respect the opinions of other people?
Total Points ________

Part Two - Answer each question about the other team. Be sure to explain the reason for your answer. Assign a grade in each category.
____ Was the team's point of view clear?
____ Did their ideas make sense?
____ Was their team well organized?
____ Did they use facts to support their opinions?
____ Did they respond to the issues raised by the other team?
____ Did members of the team express themselves clearly? (speak clearly, use body language, eye contact)
____ Was everyone on the team involved?
____ Did the team show a lot of effort?
____ Did the members of the team work well together?
____ Did members of the team listen to other people without interrupting?
____ Did members of the team respect the opinions of other people?
Total Points ____

Part Three (Please answer on the back):
What did you like best about what the other team did?
What did you learn from the other team?
What overall grade would you give your team? Why?
What overall grade would you give the other team? Why?
What overall individual grade would you give yourself? Why?

Figure D: Students Discuss the Dialogue Process

Jeanette (West Indies): "I don't usually speak. I spoke for the good of the team. Everybody on the team had to speak. I think our group did well because everyone went and our arguments made sense. On the other team, everybody went, but (a boy) kept interrupting everybody. I think he should've sat down."

Lynn (India): "Everybody should speak because everybody has an opinion. I don't usually speak. I don't like to. Who cares what I say? I care. My friends care. I feel most free to speak in class when everybody is speaking."

Eric (Indonesia): "I don't have the guts to speak in class. I don't have the right words to say it. English is hard for me. I've been here four years. The dialogue helped me to talk a little bit."

Hamasha (Zambia): "I like when we get to say our own opinions. Everybody had to get involved, so I just did."

Isty (Middle East): "In a debate, your goal is to win and you don't care if you're right or wrong. If you win, but you were wrong, that's bad. In the dialogue, you're going to think, which idea is the right one. You have a better, positive idea. In a debate you are out for yourself. In a dialogue you see what other people's opinions are. You don't care if you win or lose, you want to see truth. You get to see what people think and why they think it."

Ji (China): "In a dialogue you're sharing information, not trying to win. People have to back up their opinions."

Faria (India): "Everybody's opinion is different. You can have your own personal opinion. You don't have to agree."

Perminder (Middle East): "We were giving each other ideas and stuff. We were working well together. It's really important to know what the other people on your team think."

Alvin (United States, African American): "Teachers aren't as friendly as kids. Kids grade better. We usually get it right. Kids understand how much work we put into it."

Anna (former Soviet Republic): "Dialogues help us and the teacher see what people learn. You shouldn't get a good grade if you sleep in class and do well on the test."

David (Latin America): "Dialogues are good because you hear other people's ideas and opinions. It makes it fun for students and you learn. Grades should be based on how you do and how hard you try. They both should count."

Maria (Latin America): "Learning is more important than winning. We learn from people from different races and sexes. Life is not all about winning. You have to listen to other people so you can figure out what is right. Effort, that you tried, is more important than what you learned. You can always go back and learn it later."

Tiffany (United States, African American): "We get to see how it feels to evaluate something. We get to learn by trying to figure something out. We can learn that not everything we say is right."

1. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1938/1963), 25.
2. John Dewey, op. cit.
3. Michael Apple, Ideology and Curriculum (Boston, Routeledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).
4. Paul Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1970); also see I. Shor, "Educating the Educators: A Freirean Approach to the Crisis in Teacher Education" in Ira Shor, Freire for the Classroom (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987).
5. Maxine Greene, The Dialectic of Freedom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1985/1988).
6. M. Apple and J. Beane, Democratic Schools (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1995); J. Banks, "A Curriculum for Empowerment, Action and Change" in C. Sleeter, ed., Empowerment Through Multicultural Education (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991); W. Bigelow, "Critical Pedagogy at Jefferson High Schooquot; in Equity and Choice 4, 2 (1988), "Inside the Classroom: Social Vision and Critical Pedagogy" in Teachers College Record 91, 3 (1990).
7. N. Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools (NY: Teachers College Press, 1992); A. Kohn, No Contest: the Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986).
8. Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (NY: New Press, 1995).
9. National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, Charting A Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century (Washington, DC: Author, 1989).
10. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS Bulletin 89, 1994).

Michael Pezone is a social studies teacher at Russell Sage JHS in Queens, New York, and a member of the Hofstra Social Studies Educators.
Alan Singer is an Assistant Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, Hempstead NY. He is the author of
Social Studies: Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach, scheduled for publication by Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates in November, 1997.