Spence was among a handful of schools nationwide invited to participate in the University of Chicago Freedom of Expression and Open Discourse in High School Conference
. Six members of the Spence community—Juniors Rhea A., Ria J. and Hamida M. attended the three-day conference alongside Head of School Bodie Brizendine, Director of Institutional Equity Rebecca Hong and History Teacher Nathalie Pierre.
Conference participants explored issues of free speech in K-12 schools as part of Q&A sessions and panels. They also discussed case studies and considered the practical application of free speech policies in educational environments.
“The topic of freedom of expression has captured our attention and focus this year,” said Brizendine. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to dig in.”
“I had the opportunity to learn about freedom of expression throughout history and its relationship with discovery and truth,” Hamida shared. “It was interesting to think about free expression in educational spaces and its effect on the well-being of students.”
“The conference was an amazing opportunity to engage with other schools” about their practices relating to free speech, said Rhea. “It gave me real perspective on the complexities of free speech and expression in schools.”
Hong similarly emphasized that the conference brought people together who offered many different viewpoints about how free speech in schools should be approached. “Most of the conference proceedings took place at group tables, with students intermixed with adults and heads of school, offering really different perspectives on what’s required in K-12 settings,” Hong shared, noting that the end goal of this work is to “foster deeper understandings and practices of freedom of expression.”
Hong noted that discussions at the conference centered around the following questions: “How do you practice community and civic engagement? What concrete skills are necessary?”
One of the main topics addressed was the difference between debate, discourse and deliberation—and how all three of those skills can be taught and practiced “skillfully, productively and compassionately” in K-12 classrooms.
“For a long time, debate has been focused on as the central form of communication,” Hong added. “Dialogue, trying to raise your level of understanding in any given conversation, and deliberation, trying to come to a joint decision around an issue with groups and different perspectives in a room, are also essential skills for students to be in discourse and exchange ideas.”
Now back from the conference, this group is considering how to further civic engagement and discourse at Spence.
For Rhea, reflecting on the key differences between those three skills was a helpful exercise as she ponders how to apply her learnings at the conference to ongoing dialogues at Spence. “I am grateful to have had in depth discussions about how debate, deliberation, and discourse can be catalysts for stimulating conversions within our School,” Rhea underscored.
“I hope to be able to help our school community take part in discussions about freedom of expression, and practice discourse skills,” Hamida added.
For Hong, “responsible civic engagement requires that we as school communities understand how to balance protection of free speech and the protection of people.” “This group will continue to take responsibility about how we build awareness of the importance of discourse skills and civic engagement, and the complexities involved.”