Liz headshot

High School Connections Blog by Head of High School Steve Soden

Tackling the Difficult Conversations: The Power of a Healthy Classroom Environment

When I discuss how the MCDS High School approaches education, I tend to focus on two components. The first is that we always try to move beyond simple fact recall and help students ponder how they know what they know. This approach is built into our curriculum, and it is a central tenet of an IB education.

The second component, however, is much more important: we recognize that a curriculum cannot be effective if the classroom environment is not conducive to learning. That environment, more than anything else, depends on relationships. We want to prepare students to engage in meaningful discussions: to not just know, but to understand. Furthermore, we want students to be able to internalize the implications of their understanding and consider the variety of perspectives that may exist, especially when tackling questions that lack a clear answer. Such an approach requires trust.

This morning, I had the pleasure of visiting one of Bob Camosy’s eleventh grade IB history classes. Anyone who has visited Mr. Camosy’s class knows that it is never enough for students to simply know what happened. Instead, students have to engage personally with the content, understand the context and implications of what happened in history, and draw connections to the way they currently understand the world around them.

Today’s discussion was, at the outset, the Reconstruction era following the United States Civil War. I was excited, however, to see that the class had shifted to a topic with ongoing importance: the impact of generational wealth. Mr. Camosy, in turn, used the context of that discussion to enable students to explore the justification for reparations. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the most impactful questions rarely possess a clear right or wrong answer; today’s question was most certainly impactful.

The students, as you might imagine, brought with them a variety of opinions on the topic, and Mr. Camosy had created an environment in his classroom where those opinions could be shared and discussed. Students agreed, and students disagreed, and it was clear that the classroom environment Mr. Camosy had built allowed them to engage fruitfully in what is a necessary, emotional discussion with real-world implications. The students were challenged—both by their peers and their teacher—to justify their responses, hone their thinking, and support their claims with evidence. It was easy to see how they will carry these skills with them as they tackle the complexities that will await them in adulthood.

When I asked Mr. Camosy about the class and how he went about creating this classroom environment, he was initially somewhat dismissive of his role, stating a line I hear often from our teachers: “We have amazing students.” While he is not wrong in that evaluation, there was clearly more to it. As he went into it further and considered his role a bit more, Mr. Camosy added, “I suppose being your authentic self in front of the class helps and trying to show them that other perspectives on issues are valuable.”

It is this authenticity that, in my mind, truly matters. Students feel it when teachers are authentic, and they, in turn, are more willing to be their authentic selves in class, as well. Mr. Camosy was able to challenge students because of the environment that existed in his classroom, not in spite of it, and our students were able to learn more because of it.

Leave a Reply