6 Ways to Make Democracy a Daily Practice

There is a growing sense that our country is becoming more polarized, that extreme opinions dominate policy discourse, and that we each live in our bubble of media reinforcing our opinions, making each of us always and forever right.

My grandmother, a former politician, tells me that when she was in the legislature and serving on local boards, she often worked on projects with people from the opposite party. “We could talk to each other,” she says. “Sure, we disagreed, but it was civil and we could still be friends.”

Creating a democratic society where all citizens participate and feel heard is a very tall order. So tall. When I was a teacher, I didn’t always think of my role in this project. “The civics teacher is responsible for that.” In fact, it was most definitely my role to be giving students daily practice in civil discourse.

Participating in a discussion isn’t easy, especially when a student is shy, is new to a group, or feels like an outsider. Even for gregarious students, contributing to a welcoming discussion on important problems is likely a foreign past time. So how do we teach students to be the kinds of people who can reach toward consensus rather than polarization?

A Daily Practice

Being a part of a civil society means being able to listen compassionately to others and being open to changing one’s mind. We can invite these qualities into every kind of class.


Every Student Participates Every Day.
I think the most important first step is to help every student become comfortable with constructing their own opinions. To make this a part of your daily routine, make time to ask an open-ended question no matter how big or small.

Circulate Opinions.
Not only should students learn to construct their own opinions thoughtfully, but also to hear disparate opinions compassionately. When we share student ideas anonymously on the board, they get to see how their thoughts differ from their peers and learn that their are many ways to interpret the world. Anonymous polling and discussions can draw out the opinions of quieter students.

Respond with inquiry and empathy.
Encourage students to ask questions about each other’s opinions and ask them to make arguments for opinions other than their own.

Learning how to Discuss

For some students, this type of careful listening and discussing will be very new and possibly intimidating. Here are some ideas for different ways to guide and lend structure to your discussions:

Help students learn how to listen without judgement. Pair students up and ask the first student to explain their opinion about the particular topic you’ve chosen. Ask the second student to repeat back what the first said. The goal isn’t to summarize or put into their own words, but to truly hear and repeat back what was said. They repeat until the first student agrees that the second student has understood. Then switch. (Fun note: you’ll often find that students who disagreed thoroughly at the beginning of the exercise have come much closer to agreement, or at least empathy, by the end. Once you’ve truly heard another person, it’s much harder to think they are completely wrong).

Let students be architects of the classroom. From the first day of class, lead a class discussion about the rules and guidelines that will govern your classroom. Talk about what a rule is for, and about what rules they think are important. Talk about what should happen if someone breaks a rule. Then have regular follow-up meetings to check-in. Are the rules working as we hoped? Are there rules we don’t need or do need? Are there issues to work out? Having regular meetings will get students in the habit of working through different opinions and taking responsibility for their environment.

Give students tools. When students are new to this kind of discussion, they don’t always have words at the ready to respond to a differing opinion. Give them phrases ahead of time that can give them constructive ways to respond as well as tools to invite others into the discussion. Like “what are you basing your opinion on,” “when you say […] do you mean […]? “What do other people think of what she just said?”

Whether you teach Social Studies, Math, or World Languages, you can prepare your students to participate responsibly and thoughtfully in civil discourse by giving them daily practice in constructing and considering opinions.