Courageous Conversations
in English Language Arts

AUGUST 10, 2023


"If we want to grow as teachers -- we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives -- risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract."
(Parker J. Palmer, 2007)

As teachers we are asked to possess a multitude of qualities and attributes. A standard in any university pre-service teacher course is to ask the pre-service teachers to brainstorm all the qualities necessary to be an excellent teacher. They easily come up with words such as caring, flexible, prepared, dedicated, understanding, knowledgeable, and you know the rest. The one word that has never come up in all the years I have asked this question is the word: courageous.

Now all of us who have spent time in a classroom working with either young children or adolescents know that this is not a profession for the weak of heart. There are so many possibilities daily for something to go off the rails, and usually it happens. Yet, each day we rise with the sun (or before), get dressed and head back into the classroom ready for another day of unexpected surprises. If this doesn’t take courage, I don’t know what does.

From my years in “the trenches” I have unknowingly walked into a minefield on more than one occasion. Whether it came from one of my students finding out their parents were getting a divorce, the death of a loved one, that they had no food in their home, the fear of family members who were unsafe due to war in their home country, that they had been physically or mentally harmed, and the list goes on. Looking back at those moments, I know that I tried my best to comfort, support and guide these children as best I could. Was I prepared to deal with these conversations? No. Could I have done a better job? Yes.

With this in mind, I decided that I needed to work with the next generation of classroom teachers so that they might be ready when one of these dilemmas inevitably arose. This led to the development of “Courageous Conversations.” The idea was that this wasn’t to be pulled out of your bag of tricks when an uncomfortable incident occurred, instead, it was to become part of the curriculum. A way for students and yourself to delve into challenging issues with courage and care in order to build confidence and compassion. The more a classroom took up the challenge to read, write, listen and talk about topics that are not usually part of the Language Arts curriculum, the better equipped we all would be and the easier time we all would have when students were at their most vulnerable.

How to do this in your own classroom is relatively simple. It begins with selecting a topic that you feel particularly drawn to. I have a list readily available, but I am sure there will be more that you can add.



Gender Roles










Eating Disorders




Peer Pressure




Human Rights

The next thing needed is a text that is suitable for your class that deals with the issue you wish to speak about with your students. I have used illustrated picture books but prefer using novels and graphic novels with my elementary pre-service teachers as it allows for the opportunity to beef up novel studies and explore the themes over a sustained period of time therefore deepening the content of the Courageous Conversations as we build our capacity and commitment to push our boundaries of discomfort. The following is a list of some texts that have been piloted by elementary teacher candidates at McGill University.

·  The Pants Project by Cat Clarke (LGBTQIA2S+)

·  The Breadwinner by Barbara Ellis (War and Gender Roles)

·  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson (Death and Loss)

·  Wonder by RJ Palacio (Bullying and Difference)

· Fatty Legs by Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and Christy Jordan-
Fenton (Residential Schools)

·  Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli (Peer Pressure)

·  Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson (Grief and Loss)

· Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Racial Prejudice and Systemic

·  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (War and Discrimination)

·  Both Can Be True by Jules Machias (LGBTQIA2S+)

·  The Jigsaw Puzzle King by Gina McMurchy-Barber (Special Needs)

·  Living with Viola by Rosena Fung (Anxiety)

·  Squint by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown (Peer Pressure)

·  Paper Things by Jennifer Jacobson (Poverty)

·  Coco: A Story about Music, Shoes, and Family by Diana Lepoz (Death)

·  Refugee by Alan Gratz (War)

·  Restart by Gordon Korman (Bullying)

·  The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Death)

·  Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Illness and Death)

·  Money Hungry by Sharon G Flake (Poverty)

·  New Kid by Jerry Craft (Rejection and Race)

·  The Great Treehouse War by Lisa Graff (Divorce)

Key passages are then selected throughout the novel/graphic novel. They are contextualized and shared with the class. In small groups, open ended questions are posed and the Courageous Conversations begin. The discussions then move from small group to full class allowing those who wish to share more openly to do so and for those who are not quite ready, to sit and listen until they are. An example of a quote and discussion questions from Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes which tackles the issues of racial prejudice and systemic racism is offered below.

I refer to the work of Singleton (2021) to lay out four agreements for our Courageous Conversations. Everyone is 1) to stay engaged in the conversation; 2) to speak their truth; 3) to know they may experience discomfort; and 4) to be prepared to expect and accept non-closure. It is my hope that all the soon to be teachers engaging in these discussions will commit to engaging with each other and the group with honesty, vulnerability, and an open mind. The goal is to listen closely so we can understand each other’s perspectives, even if we don’t agree, and to keep the conversation going, even when it gets uncomfortable (D’Aunno, 2017).

Some guidelines you will want to put in place with your students before embarking on a Courageous Conversation may include:

·   Include all voices in the conversation. 

·   Listen respectfully without interrupting.

·   Be open to changing your perspectives based on what you learn from

·   Understand that we are bound to make mistakes in this space.

·   Understand that your words have effects on others. 

· Understand that others will come to these conversations with different
experiences from yours.

As a community of learners, we spend a great deal of time reflecting following the Courageous Conversation. It is such an important piece of our learning journeys to reflect on how we are feeling, why we are feeling what we are feeling, and where the root of these feelings has come from.

The feedback from the pre-service teachers I have worked with the past two years developing these Courageous Conversations has been extremely positive. Together we have spent hours learning about each other and ourselves in ways we never thought we would. We have created safe environments where we have been free to share, to question, to laugh, and to cry together. These experiences have not only made us better teachers, but I honestly believe better people in general.

Today’s ELA teachers are going to be brave and able to have any conversation with their students, even the ones that make them a little uncomfortable or make them feel that knot inside their stomach. That feeling will let you know that you are indeed embarking on a Courageous Conversation. I applaud you for taking the risk and first step to moving outside your comfort zone.

References cited:

Singleton, G.E. (2021). Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools and Beyond. Corwin Press. 3rd ed.

D'Aunno, L. et al. (2017, August 8). Ground Rules for Continuing Courageous Conversations. Continuing Conversations Toolkit.

Melanie Bennett-Stonebanks is a professor of English Language Arts at McGill University.


© 2023, Literacy Today