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‘2020 Has Been a Wake-Up Call’: Reflections on Our Civil Conversation Challenge


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Teenagers posted over 12,000 comments in response to our invitation to talk about politics across divides. We loved the results.

VideoCinemagraph CreditCredit…By Till LauerKatherine SchultenNatalie Proulx

  • Jan. 14, 2021

Please note: As this piece publishes — and as the United States heads toward the inauguration of a new president even as the current president is impeached for the second time — we are also publishing a summary of the 1,200-plus teenage reactions to our Jan. 6 Student Opinion question, What Are Your Reactions to the Storming of the Capitol by a Pro-Trump Mob? Though that forum focused on individual response rather than conversation, many of the positive qualities we identify below are on display there as well. Thank you, students, for raising your voices.

This fall we invited teenagers to come to our site and, via the comments section, have productive and respectful conversations about some of the hot-button issues of the 2020 election.

Some 12,595 responses later, we’ve heard from kids in nearly all 50 states on topics including racism and racial justice; voting and democracy; our national response to the coronavirus pandemic; an array of education-related issues; and many other topics that students raised themselves, including abortion, climate change, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the minimum wage.

Our main takeaway, both from our own impressions and from what the teenagers and their teachers told us when it was over? The challenge was a success. Wielding both evidence and empathy, students were able to have the kinds of polite but meaningful conversations across ideological and demographic divides that, it seems, many adults could not. Our staff members read all 12,000-plus comments, and we were moved, inspired, sometimes amused and often informed.

Here is how the best of those conversations worked, as illustrated in the GIF below that shows excerpts from a thread that was some 25 responses long:

VideoCinemagraph CreditCredit…By Callie Holtermann

As delighted as we were that these forums seemed to foster civil conversation, in this year of quarantine isolation they may have played an even more important role. Student after student told us that connecting and bonding with others their age across the country was their favorite part.

The challenge was a repeat of an experiment we first ran during the 2016 presidential election. But in September of 2016, when we invited teenagers to discuss issues like gun control and immigration, participants weren’t also experiencing their seventh month inside, away from friends, classrooms, teams, competitions, performances and most of the other gatherings of ordinary life. Several people pointed out that it was a rare school assignment that encouraged them to talk meaningfully to other young people outside their own schools in the first place, but that participating this year was especially helpful.

“Depending on where we live we can get up into a bubble and forget that there are other students that have very different opinions. Having this opportunity was enlightening,” Jayce McDonald from Montana wrote. Sadhana Thirumazhusai from Virginia agreed: “You were able to dig in and find people just like you and people not at all the same, but all able to communicate about issues that we should honestly have more of a say in.”

To make connecting easier, this time around we began with a forum in which students were invited to introduce themselves and talk about how their political beliefs have been shaped. That forum alone was so rich that we could have focused on it exclusively. If you’re interested, we recommend skimming some of the 2,650 comments for a more detailed look at how young people describe “coming-of-age” politically.

But for all that was positive about this challenge, the stress and worry teenagers feel also came through loud and clear. “This 2020 election has had my hair turning grey,” Macey C. from California wrote. Many students said that 2020 had been “a wake-up call,” often noting that their months in quarantine were the most “thoughtful” experiences of their lives. Watching elected officials react to the pandemic made many pay attention to how the systems they learned about in civics actually work — or don’t — in practice. (As Rachel Fox of New York put it, “I was able to take off the rose-colored glasses of childhood and see that not every government always acts in its people’s best interests.”) And this summer’s protests for racial justice were a turning point for many, including Grace Neiconi of Georgia, who began a reflection this way:

Blissful ignorance. To simply sum it up in two words, I was blissfully ignorant to any struggles that oppressed Americans faced, as long as I did not happen to fall into that same category.

Some of the students who came to our forums were hyper-informed, like Liam Fitzpatrick from New York, who wrote, “I’ve been involved in politics my whole life, a self-professed C-SPAN junkie and case law nerd who could probably list more Supreme Court cases than Hollywood celebrities.” But many others admitted they were only beginning to educate themselves, and reached out to those who knew more to help them understand. As you’ll see below, we found this kind of honesty and vulnerability both impressive and poignant.

Now some takeaways, from both the students and the Learning Network staff. Unlike our other contests, or even our weekly Current Events Conversation, we are not calling out all of the “best” or “favorite” comments — that’s just not possible, given the volume. Instead, we are noting some interesting patterns, with examples for each.

But before we do that, a heartfelt thanks to the students and teachers who participated, especially given the logistics an assignment like this one required for those in virtual and hybrid schools. We know that what we learned from these students will inform what we offer on our site in the future, and we hope there are similar takeaways here for any teacher — or learner.

Please note: Some of the comments quoted below have been lightly edited for clarity or length, though as much as possible we left them exactly as submitted. Where we had the information, we have also included the states students are from.

Student after student commented on how scary it usually feels to state their political opinions publicly. To do so is to open oneself up to “social media hate,” “ridicule” or “harsh debate,” they said. Aaron Peskin from Illinois phrased it this way: “I don’t like the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ because saying you identify with either side pits you against half of the U.S. population.”

Many also reflected on what it is like to hold views that they perceived as different from those of most people where they live or go to school. Elliott Chang from New York, for example, said even posting in our forum “gives me slight nausea”:

Living in New York City I have always been surrounded by progressive thoughts and ideals. As a child I admired it because I equated liberalism with morality. As I grew older, I realized my opinions did not exactly align with those of the extremist liberals. This realization was isolating. Even writing about this now gives me slight nausea … The most frustrating part of politics is the culture of dismissing someone as a bad person for having a different belief system. They are not.

Kylie Wilkes from California took an online “political typology quiz” we suggested for students who weren’t sure how to characterize their beliefs, and wrote this in response:

Honestly, living in California and not sharing the typical beliefs has been hard on me. I should not have to be criticized for what I agree with and be blasted on social media … I accept everyone and love everyone equally but you are telling me that because I support law enforcement, I am racist? When I took the quiz I was labeled as a core conservative. Even just sharing that online scares me because I have no intention of offending anyone and I don’t want to be attacked.

And Alex McMillan, from Florida, described the political vitriol in his group chats:

With the upcoming presidential election my Snapchat group chats have become political battlegrounds. Our thoughts on who would win tonight’s game have shifted to who will win the election. The way we approach politics is the way we approach sports. As a teenage boy in America today, to claim a political stance has become equal to supporting a sports team. Daily discussions on the topic have turned to heated arguments and debates focused on winning instead of progression or finding common ground. Supporting Biden has left me exposed to insults like “libtard,” “snowflake” and “sheep.” Am I surprised? No. These words replace taunts that would be used if we were playing pickup basketball.

He pointed out, though, that this polarization is hardly unique to teenagers:

Though I’m not insulted, the normalization of this type of speech when speaking about ideas like human rights prevents thoughtful discussions. Kids should not be blamed for this type of behavior. We mimic what we see everyday. Whether it be YouTube compilations of right-wing pundits “destroying liberals” or leftist Twitter groups “canceling” conservatives, parties have become malicious toward the other side. Civil discussion about politics these days is nearly nonexistent. It is just as difficult for kids my age to discuss politics as it is for adults.

Given this, we were happy to note how many students said these forums felt “nontoxic” and “nonjudgmental.” Of course, we also know that is largely to do with the fact that this was a school assignment on a moderated platform, and our staff adhered to Times commenting standards as we worked — though very, very few comments had to be moderated out. But we also got the sense that students were hungry to explore their views, and when they saw that others got no “hate” for stating a position, they seemed encouraged to post their own.

Here is how Amelia from New York described it:

As a student I think it was a really great experience to write and read the comments from others around my age. At first I was a little hesitant about what to say because I did not want to be judged or perceived in a certain way by others. Seeing how civilized everyone was — especially since we are younger — was really amazing. I was able to talk not only about politics in general but express my views in a safe environment.

How did they do this? Here are some of the “moves” we noticed teenagers making repeatedly to keep the tone respectful but productive.

Students approached disagreements thoughtfully.

Most of our participants took pains to reflect on what they read from others and to find points of agreement. But when they disagreed, they stayed away from personal attacks. They also usually bolstered their arguments with evidence or sources, and used language like “I respectfully disagree” to frame what they had to say.

For example, in the wide-ranging discussions in our coronavirus forum, students debated lockdowns, masks, vaccines and remote schooling. While many noted that nearly all countries struggled to find effective responses, and that no leader alone could solve the global crisis, numerous students from around the country found the response by leaders in the United States — especially President Trump — to be lacking.

Some, however, defended the president’s response. Here is how Bryson from Georgia began a conversation:

I believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has been handled well. In late January, President Trump imposed travel restrictions to China as an early precaution … I believe that social distancing should be relaxed and masks should not be worn. Sweden never went into lockdown, and never closed schools or restaurants. Sweden let the virus run its course, and let all of its citizens get Covid-19, so that everyone would build immunity.

Sasha from North Carolina countered:

@Bryson I agree that the travel restrictions put on China were a good idea and most likely prevented many Covid cases. I do, however, disagree with your idea of letting the virus run its course. Sweden is a very small country, and we really shouldn’t compare ourselves to them. If we took down all restrictions, thousands of people would die.

Molly Claire Dormer from Massachusetts responded:

@Bryson I respectfully disagree with what you have said … Personally, I think that the country (the United States) should have been shut down when the first case was confirmed, with extremely strict and consistent guidelines for social distancing. Also, it is worth noting that the population of Sweden is 10 million and the population of the U.S. is around 331 million, making the U.S. approximately 33 times larger. Sweden’s Covid plan was ineffective and a good portion of its citizens do not have immunity to Covid. If we followed that same plan, our death toll could have been closer to 2 million. I’m putting a couple articles I read at the bottom while responding to your post. I found them to be informative and I recommend that you read them!

Students allowed themselves to be vulnerable and honest, both by telling stories from their lives to provide context, and by quickly admitting what they didn’t know or understand.

This was the quality across forums that may have impressed and moved our staff the most. In the coronavirus conversation, for instance, teenagers shared stories of lives lost, jobs ended, and hopes of proms, sports championships and other dreams discarded. These stories not only helped them bond across regions and belief systems, but also showed how others had arrived at points of view that were different from their own.

In fact, across forums students were extremely careful to ground their opinions in their own circumstances, acknowledging often that theirs was just one perspective. They also regularly noted their relative “privilege” — a word that came up significantly more often this year than in our 2016 Civil Conversation Challenge.

For example, Liz Teleguine from Virginia added this to a conversation on the coronavirus:

@Katelyn My dad lost his job back in June, and I could notice a lull in the house about how “the virus won’t actually affect OUR family,” which my parents used to say a lot. We were still in quite a position of privilege, as my mom was still working on a good salary and we had some savings put away. Still, even we had to make some sacrifices. I can only imagine how bad it was for others. It was really upsetting to see people brushing it off because they were “low risk” or just bored.

And in another conversation, Laurie Bedore from New Jersey shared a personal experience to illustrate a point about mask-wearing:

@Jackson Lawrence I strongly disagree with your statement. I understand that not all precautions will work for every state and every person. However, wearing a mask is scientifically proven to be one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus … As an employee at a pizza restaurant where people have to come inside to pick up their takeout orders, I am truly frightened by all of the people that stroll inside with their mask not properly positioned on their face, or the people who do not wear one at all. They are putting me and my family at risk and I see that as selfish and disrespectful. Forcing everyone to wear a mask would, without a doubt, help more people than it would hurt.

Students were also honest about what they didn’t know, and often looked to others for help. In a conversation in our forum on voting and democracy, for example, Tate Warren from Utah talked about not realizing there were issues with elections in the United States. (And once he weighed in, others quickly agreed.)

I have lived in Utah my whole life. Utah is a particularly conservative state as seen in the abundant amount of suburbs with little diversity, which is where I live. I have never even considered our election process to be an issue. My family has never experienced any struggle in voting, and I would have never begun to think that there were any issues.

Nowhere was this honesty and vulnerability more notable than in the forum on racial justice.

More so than in any other forum, students discussing racism and racial justice regularly acknowledged their own privilege, and invited others to be vulnerable and empathetic. They grounded their opinions in personal experiences at school, with their families, and at recent and past protests. They were also adamant about finding support for arguments — and when there wasn’t support, they asked for it. Notably, white students often thanked Black students and other students of color for sharing their experiences with racism, while simultaneously acknowledging the limits of what they could understand from firsthand experience themselves.

For example, Abby O’Brien from California wrote:

I am not Black, so I will never understand the discrimination that people have faced … After George Floyd died, I was not aware that racism was a major issue that the world was still facing. I realized that Black people are being killed based on their race, which is something that should not be happening. It makes me sad to know that innocent people are being killed simply because of the color of their skin. Change is needed if the United States wants to end racism.

Kennedy Hanifl from Wisconsin agreed and added:

@Abby O’Brien I absolutely agree with you … Throughout most of my childhood, I was ignorant of what was happening in the real world because I was sheltered from some topics like racism and oppression. I believe the education system should teach more about the oppressing topics of historical events that have played a major role in shaping history that got us to where we are today and why we are trying to fix this silently broken society.

And Jay D. from New York, who identifies as Asian-American, shared this experience of recognizing racial privilege:

It was only this year after discussing the protests occurring for George Floyd with other Asians that I had come to the realization that the ideas my family had perpetrated on me were the epitome of the “model minority.”

Putting Asian-Americans on a pedestal is destructive toward African Americans and the racial inequalities they face. It dismisses their struggles by using the Asian-American stories as testimonial representation to back up false claims against African Americans, classifying them as “lazy” and “hostile.”

It is important to discuss these matters as the only true way to create change is through an open mind-set and discussion.

Many, like Jordan Gust from Kansas, reflected on what they learned this summer from the Black Lives Matter movement:

I never really knew the problems of our world. More than that, I didn’t want to. The BLM movement has also helped me navigate the political waters, leading me the way to what I think is right and wrong. Politics are divisive, and I don’t like to talk often about them because they absolutely ruin relationships. I just recently lost my aunt because she was against the BLM movement. However uncomfortable I may be talking about them, they still need to be discussed. If we didn’t share what we thought just to preserve our friendships, we would never grow or learn, and that is the most important thing of all.

NBA from Pennsylvania shared a story about an unsettling encounter she and her father had with police:

As a Black female of the youth, I feel that it was only right for me to speak on this heavy topic. My father and I talk about racial injustice all the time. The first time we ever talked about it was after he got pulled over for “speeding.” The male and female officers were talking to my father. My father asked if they could put the cuffs on him at the back of the car because he knew I would cry. The male officer said OK but, the female officer pushed his head on the hood of the police car and I screamed out.

And Jasmine Nguyen from California replied, saying that NBA’s experience opened her eyes:

@NBA As a young student, I was never really properly educated on why some people were treated better than others based on their skin color … Because of my lack of knowledge I never really understood the fear and worries African Americans felt. As a person of color, I don’t have to worry a lot about police officers, but after reading your comment it made me realize actually just how bad racial justice and equality are. The fact that people have to fear police officers because of their skin color is absolutely terrible. I hope that this country finally realizes how bad this topic is and to solve the injustice.

Students often showed extraordinary empathy. For example, here is Ashley Scott from Georgia on her reaction to the “hate” she sees others directing toward the Black Lives Matter movement:

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, I saw people posting rants on their Instagram stories filled with nothing but hate. Again something that seemed so simple to me, was so difficult for them to understand. But how could I blame them? They didn’t grow up having their black father get pulled over by the cops because a man like him driving that car is “suspicious.” They didn’t grow up having to listen to your younger brother get “the talk” in regards to talking to the police. I had to understand that they don’t understand, because they are not me and they have not seen what I have seen or experienced what I have experienced.

They also regularly reminded each other to try on new perspectives, as Uschi Juaniza from Pennsylvania does in this conversation:

You said, “I’m sure African Americans do get angry when they see another Black person being killed by a police officer” but I feel like that is an understatement. Imagine seeing people that look just like you, murdered by the people you thought were protecting you. Not only is it maddening, but it is terrifying knowing someone could murder you without any consequences. The color of your skin should not change whether you will live or die.

Many students, however, said they had not witnessed or experienced racism and were, instead, deeply concerned about violence associated with the protests this summer. These students often said that though they agreed with the Black Lives Matter movement conceptually, they did not support protests. This often resulted in conversations about the meaning and purpose of protest in general.

For example, here is Josie from New York:

Racial inequality has been a problem for a really long time. Everyone’s voices should be heard, but at the same time they should be heard in a calm and not aggressive way. Yes, protest can get heated but they shouldn’t get so heated where fire starts.

I stand for All Lives Matter … it’s hard when you know that a family member has to go to work and work a riot. Especially when they’re a parent and an officer. I’ve been told to just stay away and to not engage in the problem. So that’s what I did. I see BLM signs and Blue Lives Matter signs everywhere now. I mean my grandma has a Blue Lives Matter sign out on her front lawn. Then I see others that have been vandalized, and I don’t think that right. Everyone should be treated equally and everyone has to stop judging people by the color of their skin or what they believe.

Ryan Muro from Arizona is just one of many who replied:

While I completely agree with you on the state of the ongoing riots and protests, I still believe that it is within people’s rights as citizens to protest. There have definitely been examples in history of civil protests; I think this is the same for racial injustice in America currently. Rioting is the language of the unheard and what we are seeing currently is the pent up rage and aggression of such protesters. I always view rioting and protesting a sign that there is a desire for improvement in America. I mean, who doesn’t want a better America?

If there was ever a time for young people to bond over a common experience, the near-universal lack of a normal school year in 2020 was it. Our forum on education was marked not so much by stark disagreement as by relief that others were facing the same challenges.

There were deep discussions about how much students were struggling, in whatever model of pandemic schooling they were in. (“I feel like I can’t learn the way I used to and it shows,” wrote Jaden Elm from Colorado.) But there was also a great deal of talk about the pressures of school in general, and the feeling that it is “more about memorizing than learning.” A few lively conversations developed about what schools ought to be teaching instead, including many more practical skills (how to file taxes, apply for a job and invest money, for instance), as well as the history of racism, gender identity, more “creative subjects” and more about “emotional intelligence.”

Here is what we saw happening in this forum most often.

Students compared school systems and pointed out inequities.

One interesting pattern in the education forum was the frequency with which students from different types of schools — public, private, religious, charter, magnet and more — compared notes. Anger about inequities came up in many of these conversations. As Jamie from Kansas wrote:

Personally, I live in a wealthier area with an amazing public school. But traveling to other schools for away games often makes me reflect on what I’ve been given and why I deserve a better education and facilities than other students.

Daviel Schulman from New York began one thread this way:

Since I attend public school and my sister attends private school, I was able to compare our schools’ responses to the abrupt shutdown. My sister’s school immediately trained all students and teachers in using Google Meet and other online learning platforms. She was following a regular school schedule starting the first day she was home. When parents complained that the students did not have enough time in between classes, the school quickly adjusted its schedule to allow students ten minutes of “movement time” between each class. Meanwhile, my school had no structured plan for distance learning; each teacher had to come up with their own methods. For the first month or two, I was able to wake up whenever I wanted and do my work whenever I wanted. The pandemic has made it very clear to me how much more organized and responsive private schools are in comparison to public schools — a big problem.

Kawela from Hawaii jumped into a similar thread:

This topic interests me because I go to a private school which is open right now and my younger brothers are in a public-charter school which is closed. I feel sad that my brothers can’t go to school and see their friends, although I am glad that they can join Zoom calls and talk with their friends after their assignments are done. I do believe that my private school is giving me a better education because I physically get to be in school. Being in a classroom keeps me focused and helps me as a student.

And Itzayany Ledezma from California posted:

All children in America should be able to get quality education whether they are in private or public schools. People tend to say that public schools aren’t as supportive as private schools but I’ve gone to public school my whole life and all my teachers have always done a great job at challenging me to move forward to do better and learn new things.

Students seemed grateful to meet others having similar experiences.

This comment to Joselyn from Florida by Rosemary Yahne from Utah is a poignant example:

@joselyn Thanks for your thoughts. Many times throughout my life, I thought I was alone in my thoughts and concerned. I have many friends who also plan to go to college, but most aren’t worried about paying for it. They are either upper class and able to easily afford it or can easily get aids or grants from either their family military service or the state. I know logically there are many other teenagers out there who experience — and are worried about — this same struggle. Still, it is comforting to hear another person’s experience.

One thing the Learning Network staff has long observed is how open-minded teenagers can be. Often via our daily writing prompts, we feel as if we are witnessing them thinking and questioning aloud, wandering back and forth across what adults might consider hard and fast ideological lines. In our forum about political identity, many spoke of having one parent or other close relative who was a Republican and another who was a Democrat, and trying to make sense of where they stood in relation to loving and respecting both.

Here are some patterns we saw.

Students thought aloud, taking on new information that made their arguments more nuanced.

Students were quick to thank one another for making a good counterpoint or directing them to a resource. Many told us in their final reflections that hearing so many different opinions was a valuable test of their own. For instance, Lisette Catalan said the challenge “made me think more about my beliefs, about what I value more than other things, and it made me self-reflect.”

Some of the best of this happened in the voting forum, where this exchange about voter fraud via mail-in voting was typical. Here is Aarush from New Jersey replying to Ben Nagel from Massachusetts:

@Ben I disagree. Mail-in-voting is no anomaly as five states in this country (Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington) have been using mail-in voting for a long time, and until now there has been no denouncing of the validity of their elections from the president. Most importantly, our troops have been voting by mail since the Civil War and there has been no exclamation to this until now. If we are able to trust the voting process of these six groups, then there is no reason to be fearful of mail-in voting now as it’s just more of the same.

Ben then seemed to do more research, and returned with a changed mind:

@Aarush I agree with the points you made and it is my fault for some of the research I did. First off, I was wrong about mail-in ballot fraud. I have now done a lot more reading on the subject and agree that it is very safe. However, part of the reason for my misinformation has to do with the president. He and many others have been adamant about the issue with mail-in voting and came up with what, at the time, seemed like valid arguments but which I now see were just lies.

You can also see this in the 25-comment-long thread that we used as a GIF in our introduction, in which students deepened their opinions about the United States’ pandemic response by building upon one another’s points. Annabella from North Carolina started it off:

I have mixed feelings about how “good” of a job America has done responding to Covid-19. I do have sympathy toward our leaders, because no one in their right mind could have predicted this global pandemic, not to mention what to do to keep the community safe. However, when other countries started to take action with actual quarantine, mandatory masks, gathering the supplies they needed, and providing access to testing, America stood back and watched. If we took action faster we could have saved an estimated 200,000 lives. Instead, our president downplayed the virus and claimed it would be over in the span of a few weeks.

Many others agreed and added their thoughts, including Makayla Ingraham of Florida, who wrote:

@Annabella I mostly agree with you when you say that we should have taken action faster. But, I think that government officials, especially the president, should go through crisis training for situations like this. Sicknesses have broken out before so the government should have somewhat of a plan in place just in case something happens like this.

Annabella returned with some new ideas:

@Makayla Ingraham You made a very valid point. I agree, government officials and presidents should go through some sort of crisis training prior to their term. I also agree that we could use previous outbreaks as an example and take into account what did and didn’t work. By doing this we could be more prepared for future outbreaks and know how to handle the situation in a way that would be beneficial to us.

They showed they’d read and considered the views of others.

In a long thread about college affordability, Katie M. from North Carolina considered several other students’ suggestions before coming to her own conclusion:

@Jane I agree with you here. Obviously, the alternatives that @Ryan suggested are useful, but they are simply alternatives. Online school is great, but I think we all got a taste firsthand this year that online school just isn’t the same as going in person. While I like the idea that @Teieki E proposed about college being free, I don’t think that’s really feasible. Like @Collin Sweitzer mentioned, you can’t make it free for everyone, because then colleges won’t have enough money to function. However, I think there should be more scholarships, and government-funding going toward education. I mean, we want more people to have a higher education, right? Our government should work harder to make that a reality.

And Allison Blood of Utah wrote that reading the opinions of one student helped her better understand her own views on the United States’ handling of the coronavirus crisis:

@Aroush Zeeshan Thank you so much for sharing your perspective! Hearing about how other people have viewed this pandemic helps me personally to sort out my views and build off of what I know. I wholeheartedly agree that, as a country, we could have done, and could currently be doing, so much better … Everyone has been doing what they feel is the right, or at least the most comfortable, thing. The only way we can move on and eventually move out of this pandemic is if we all collectively realize its true severity and do what must be done to lessen its blows.

They posed good questions.

Kingsten from Ohio sought clarification — politely, not judgmentally — on one commenter’s suggestion to reform the Electoral College:

@Marley S I’m a little confused about the proportional voting that you proposed. Correct me if I’m wrong, but let’s say we have a state with 13 congressional districts. In an winner take all system, if a candidate wins 7 districts they get all 13. In your system, if a candidate gets districts 1-7 they only get those districts, and not 8-13? To me, this just seems like the current Electoral College except delegated down to the state level instead of national. I do think it will be a bit more accurate, but it might actually suppress big city voters even more.

And Mya R. from California, used a question to prompt a commenter concerned about rioting to look at the Black Lives Matter protests from a different perspective:

I definitely agree that it was wrong to destroy all these stores and that they should have peacefully protested. Have you thought about how frustrated African Americans are with the whole situation?

They supported claims with reliable sources and evidence — and corrected misinformation.

Many students said in their final reflections they were motivated by the conversations to do additional research to make their points more strongly. Daniel Stevenson wrote, “I had a great experience doing this project because I did lots of studying on my subject and learned way more than I previously knew.” Riya Helmbrecht from Maryland added that the conversations “opened my eyes to different opinions and made me think and be very detailed.” And Colby Kramer from Massachusetts wrote, “Whether or not I agreed with their statements, I still enjoyed being able to see other conflicting opinions and how they decided to back up their statements with facts and evidence, or real life experiences.”

Students also took it upon themselves to correct misinformation where they saw it. We comment moderators often faced the dilemma of not wanting to allow something we knew to be false to go up on our site — yet we also knew the point of these forums was to allow students to have conversations and practice pushing back when they encountered such a thing. Mostly, they did — and did it well.

In a conversation about education funding, for instance, Savanna Allen from Utah helped further another student’s argument with a specific example and some hard data from her local government:

@Udbhav Muthakana, I agree with what you say — however unfair it is — the education system is incredibly broken and unequal. I live in Utah, and our education funding is lacking. Last year we were given $490,684,000 for our education system. I found that number on; the Utah state senate published it. Utah is the fourth fastest-growing state, and we are in the top five for the lowest-funded schools. And I don’t have a solution to this, but I think it is something people should pay more attention to.

Here is Sydney Leigh from New Jersey responding to a student’s claim that white privilege “doesn’t exist”:

White privilege doesn’t mean a white person’s life can’t be hard, it just means that your skin color isn’t one of the things making it harder. In a study done by, they found that Black men were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than white men … In addition, according to, a Black person is five times more likely to be stopped without cause than a white person. Thirteen percent of the population, yet stopped five times more, the only reason being race. At the beginning of your reply, you state that you agree there needs to be change. To get this change, we first need to confront the realities of today’s world — one being that white privilege exists.

Connor M. from Illinois relied on logic to back up his opinion about voting rights:

I believe that voting is a privilege to be enjoyed by lawful citizens of the United States, and I am relatively concerned about voter fraud during the 2020 election. I believe that voter identification is very important, and do not think it’s a way to suppress the vote. You need a state ID to drive, to buy alcohol, to buy cigarettes, to apply for a job, unemployment and welfare, even to buy nail polish at CVS. I do not think it’s that much to ask for a prospective voter to produce a state ID on Election Day.

But Sarah B. from New Jersey countered that assertion with statistics:

@Connor M While I understand your concerns about voter fraud, I think the solution you propose doesn’t account for the downsides of voter ID laws, which unfairly target those who cannot afford the costs of getting an ID, whether the cost of missing a day of work to go to the DMV or the actual cost of one. According to the ACLU, “11% of U.S. citizens — or more than 21 million Americans — do not have government-issued photo identification.” That is a significant statistic.

We’ll end our reflections here, though there were hundreds of other responses that impressed us and made us Learning Network editors — all of us former teachers — wish we could witness these thoughtful conversations live in a classroom. You probably wish that, too. In the meantime, we hope there are some “moves” here your students can adopt for more productive conversations online, since the bitter divisions between us hardly ended in November.

And given the success of this experiment in both 2016 and 2020, we’re already hoping to welcome you to the third iteration in 2024. See you then.

The schools whose participation we saw most often across forums are listed below in alphabetical order. But there were also many participants who listed a school name so common across states we couldn’t pin the specific place down — “Northwest,” for example — or simply listed a place without a school, such as “Mississippi” or “Vancouver.” Thank you again, all of you, for participating.

Achievement First Hartford High School, Hartford, Conn.

Boston Latin School, Boston

Brooklyn Technical High School, Brooklyn. N.Y.

Central High School, La Crosse, Wis.

Cottonwood High School, Murray, Utah

Desert Ridge High School, Mesa, Ariz.

Donovan High School, Donovan, Ill.

Etiwanda High School, Etiwanda, Calif.

Fountain Valley High School, Fountain Valley, Calif.

Glenbard West High School, Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Glenbrook North High School, Northbrook, Ill.

High Tech High School, Lincroft, N.J.

Hoggard High School, Wilmington, N.C.

Killeen High School, Killeen, Texas

New Rochelle High School, New Rochelle, N.Y.

New Technology High School, Napa, Calif.

Northern Highlands Regional High School, Allendale, N.J.

NUAMES (Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering and Science), Layton, Utah

Oceanside High School, Oceanside, N.Y.

Peachtree Ridge High School, Suwanee, Ga.

Rio Americano High School, Sacramento

South Lakes High School, Reston, Va.

Summit School, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Va.

Unionville-Sebewaing Area High School, Sebewaing, Mich.

Valley Stream North High School, Franklin Square, N.Y.

Vanden High School, Fairfield, Calif.

Wekiva High School, Apopka, Fla.

Winnacunnet High School, Hampton, N.H.

The GIF that illustrates the top of this piece comes from the Times article “Become a Better Listener. Your Family Will Thank You.

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