Ground Rules for Discussion:
A Roadmap for Student Voices in Multicultural Education

Deena C. McKinney

Every teacher has had that certain privilege, pleasure, and anxiety of facing a new class full of unfamiliar faces. When the subject matter is diversity awareness, the immediate need is to build a community of learners with bridges of understanding. Yet discussing diversity issues can often be trying and even painful for some students. How can we as teacher educators improve this experience for our students? What can make any classroom a safe haven for discussing fearful topics, such as racism, sexism, and ageism? How can students create meaning out of their discomfort?

Through teaching courses in diversity and multiculturalism, I have discovered that establishing ground rules from day one allows my students to have clear guidelines for their participation that encourage openness, sharing, and understanding. In other words, the students find their own voices mingling in a chorus within and about diversity. Indeed, the students often exceed my expectations of their performance in classroom discussion. Encouraging students to create ground rules, I believe, can enhance any discussion centered around controversial topics. Here, I focus on the preservice education classroom; the techniques, however, can be adopted for any setting and any grade level (see the inset on page 25 by Vicki Lynch).


Drawing the Road Map

Having ground rules for discussion in the classroom is not a new concept; in many classrooms, such rules are posted. However, my own approach to ground rules is taken from writings in critical and feminist pedagogy, wherein students come to have consciousness and power for themselves through use of dialogue and critical reflection (4 Individual Development and Identity).1 Teachers using this framework act as subject matter experts regarding curriculum and methods, but encourage students to be experts with regard to their own experiences and perspectives. It is the students, then, not the teacher, who will have responsibility for developing and enforcing the ground rules.

Empowering education begins when students help to build their courses from the ground up.2 However, when I first asked students in an introductory education and diversity course to draft a list of ground rules for discussion, many were confused; these preservice teachers were not familiar with producing their own ground rules, but accustomed to having such rules provided for them. They were not resisting the exercise, but were asking for some tools from me, the subject matter expert.


To give them a nudge in the right direction, I suggested three rules to place first on their roadmap, clearly indicating this was only a starting point for their own journey:

1. Acknowledge that silence won’t protect you; if you have something to say, you should say it.

2. Anger and passion are acceptable, but they should be used in a positive manner, not as fuel to create hostility and animosity.

3. No slurs or intentionally hurtful remarks are allowed.

The students asked if ground rule one meant they had to speak, even if they did not feel like talking, which led to a brief discussion of bell hooks’ thoughts on the false protection of silence (see inset page 24).3 I explained that the rule about silence did not mean someone had to speak if they chose not to, but that they should not hold back a reply out of fear. Thinking this over, the students then added a few rules of their own:

4. We are all adults here, so we should keep a mature attitude in all that we do.

5. Sometimes, we may say things in discussion that we’d prefer kept in the classroom. Keep your classmates’ words confidential; nobody wants to have rumors floating around.

6. If we do say things that make each other upset or angry, let us try to resolve those feelings before we leave the classroom.

7. Refrain from saying “I never do that!” if we are talking about something negative or “I always do that!” if we’re talking about something positive. We have all made mistakes, and we have all done good things. No one is perfect.

8. Putting words in terms of “us v. them” serves no purpose in a dialogue intended to build understanding.

Finally, after actually having a few discussions and seeing the ground rules put into practice, the class added several more rules that helped clarify previous ones:

9. Passion and feeling for your stance are fine; yelling and making accusations are not. We should keep tempers in check.

10. Respect another person’s rights to freely express their opinion without fear of retribution.

11. Whatever our gender, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual identity, age, or physical or mental ability, we are all human beings involved in a process of education.

12. Try to put your statements in a factual or non-accusatory form.

One student volunteered to make a colorful poster of the rules, which was displayed during every session. Different students also volunteered each week to be monitors or “gatekeepers”; they held the power and responsibility for making sure class discussions progressed smoothly.4 I was surprised and pleased to discover that the students’ rules were similar to those written by seventh graders as well as college freshmen, as described by other teachers.5 As the course continued, students became more assertive as monitors, quickly yet politely reminding classmates about following rules and sharing their own perspectives to defeat silence (0 Civic Ideals and Practices).


Following the Roadmap

At several times during courses, when I would use this roadmap of ground rules, which was adopted and amended by subsequent classes, I asked students what they thought about the process of discussion, particularly its strong and weak points. Most students responded positively to the idea of ground rules for discussion. One student said, “It’s almost like we can talk about anything. We know there probably won’t be hurt feelings; it’s like we’ve sort of already apologized for anything that may be said. We know it isn’t meant in a mean way.”

Another student wrote as part of an evaluation that “the rules were good because they kept us from fighting ... this class opened my eyes and let me put my prejudice aside.” Several other students explained that ground rules “helped a lot” by showing that people can talk about difficult topics without having to agree; the rules helped everyone express their points of view freely without fear. Class monitors, one student wrote, “supported already sound practices.”

A few students were concerned that others treated them differently outside the classroom, perhaps discomforted by knowledge of their classmates’ perspectives on religion and sexual orientation. On the basis of this type of incident, I have considered making ground rules part of a learning contract in diversity and multicultural education courses. While such a contract has no tangible penalties for violation, many students tend to take the idea of a signed statement more seriously than a verbal agreement or list of rules, considering it a personal “commitment.”6


New Courses, New Roadmaps

To all teachers who are committed to the idea of encouraging students’ empowerment, speaking out, and community building (6 Power, Authority, and Governance), I offer several rationales for building ground rules in order to improve our pedagogy. First, as teachers, we need to recognize the ownership students can experience in their own classrooms. Encouraging students to write their own rules for discussion and choose their own monitors puts power into their hands and helps them develop a sense of trust. After all, learning to understand and appreciate diversity is not something we can do for them; ideally, a teacher should set positive examples, teach tolerance, and show the importance of respecting differences, rather than trying to break and reset students’ minds into a mold of the teacher’s devising.

Second, teachers should be aware of how ground rules fit into a larger context of community building. Words are connections between people.7 Of course, students bring their own contexts, languages, and lessons learned from memberships in other communities.8 Words are fragments of dialogue that are the building blocks of communication in the classroom. Ground rules are not the most important part of the dialogue process, but as grammar is to language, rules establish parameters for clarity and usage; they help students find a common language across their diverse experiences and backgrounds. Ground rules facilitate engagement and interaction, fostering a positive learning environment and a supportive classroom community.

Finally, when students construct ground rules, they are building a haven where the dangers of a student (or the teacher) posturing, silencing, or offending are greatly lessened. As teachers, we should seek to encourage the construction of such safe places for the spoken word. The bottom line is that many students desperately want to talk about diversity and how it affects their lives. Where else will they find a forum as open and, ideally, as safe as a social studies classroom with ground rules?



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

2. Ira Shor, Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Seth Kreisberg, Transforming Power: Domination, Empowerment, and Education (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992).

3. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

4. Jerome Rabow, Michelle Charness, Johanna Kipperman, and Susan Radcliffe-Vasile, William Fawcett Hil#146;s Learning Through Discussion (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994).

5. Shor.

6. Shor, 209.

7. Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women’s Ways of Knowing (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

8. Barbara Thayer-Bacon and Charles Bacon, Philosophy Applied to Education: Nurturing a Democratic Community in the Classroom (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1998).


Deena C. McKinney is an associate professor at St. Leo College in Lake City, Florida.

Ground Rules in the Upper Elementary Grades

Vicki Lynch

In a secondary classroom, it is a helpful exercise for students to establish and practice using ground rules for discussion. As students approach the teenage years, they become opinionated and are tempted to “bully” their points and opinions.

Small, guided daily discussions allow students to practice using ground rules. I facilitated the discussions with prompts, asking students to express their views in first-person statements (“I believe… I have experienced”) rather than as absolute assertions. Sometimes I ask students to begin every response with a positive remark of some kind to another speaker (“I respect your comment. However, I think…”).

I believe the most important way to implement ground rules is for the teacher to consistently model them, respecting various student opinions, even if they conflict with the teacher’s own opinion.

One can begin by having the students determine the rules for fair discussions. Encourage students to think about what must occur for a discussion to be successful. If the teacher disagrees with a proposed rule, students and teacher can negotiate and compromise.

Some rules that my class established were

1. Acknowledge that opinions are often not right or wrong, but merely different.

2. Support your views with evidence and examples.

3. It is okay to criticize what was said, but not the person expressing the opinion.

4. Listen and speak with the same respect you would like shown to you.

This is the first year that I have encouraged students to establish their own ground rules, and I have observed changes in student attitudes. Students have expressed appreciation for being allowed to help determine the operation of the classroom. Students have spoken up more to express their views and feelings. They have practiced expressing disagreement and compromising.

I have also witnessed the result of inconsistent enforcement of the ground rules. When a teacher does not strictly monitor a discussion, some students feel personally challenged and are reluctant to participate. For this reason, I believe the key to using ground rules is consistent modeling by the secondary teacher.


Vicki Lynch, a student of Deena C. McKinney, performed her preservice teaching in Florida.

bell hooks

Born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952, Gloria Watkins assumed the pen name “bell hooks” to honor her grandmother (of the same name) and to choose a professional identity that was wholly her own. The lower case letters are her appeal to readers to pay attention not to the person, but to her works.

hooks is author of several books, including Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), in which she applies to the classroom her philosophy of liberation from social hierarchies and prejudices. In her writing, she often uses examples from her own experiences as a precocious black child in the segregated South, as a college and graduate student, and as a teacher, writer, and citizen.

Although she is a notable academic (BA Stanford University; MA University of Wisconsin; PhD University of California, Santa Cruz), hooks argues that academia is not the sole purveyor of important intellectual work. Rather, hooks says, the school environment often resists critical thought and true intellectual pursuits.

Although no one ever directly stated the rules that would govern our conduct, it was taught by example and reinforced by a system of rewards. As silence and obedience to authority were most rewarded, students learned that this was the appropriate demeanor in the classroom. ... When the obsession with maintaining order is coupled with the fear of “losing face,” of not being thought well of by one’s professor and peers, all possibility of constructive dialogue is undermined. Even though students enter the “democratic” classroom believing they have the right to “free speech,” most students are not comfortable exercising this right.

From Teaching to Transgress, pages 178-179