(Mary Thomas-Vallens with students at their Braver Angels depolarization workshop)
We know well how polarization divides adults and college students, but what about high schoolers?
Northwood High School in Orange County, California became the subject of national news last June when a yearbook section comparing Donald Trump and Joe Biden came under fire for allegations of political bias. By the time the story reached Fox News, the controversy had enveloped the school community. Talks with students, parents, and school officials brought to light the fact that conservative students felt their political opinions were not valued in the classroom, leading to tense energy that pervaded the school community.
In response to this revelation, a mother contacted a local Braver Angels leader named Mary Thomas-Vallens. Mary, a teacher in the district for over forty years, is an organizer and moderator at Braver Angels. This parent urged Mary to bring Braver Angels to the high school, and the school’s principal, Leslie Roach, quickly came on board in the effort to put on workshops.
“I told [Principal Roach] about Braver Angels and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, we need this,’” Mary recalled. “For the first time in her career, politics had entered the staff lounge in a way that it never had before.”
The task in front of the team of six Braver Angels moderators Mary assembled was a daunting one: to put on a version of the Depolarizing Within workshop for the school’s entire staff, while also running a workshop for a senior class of almost 600 students. The goal? To foster productive discourse within the school community that promoted respect and listening.
The high school had never tried anything like this before. And neither, for that matter, had Braver Angels.
Tackling a new arena
“Mary is an absolute phenom and she just worked herself to the bone putting this all together,” said Braver Angels Director of Events Randy Lioz, who worked with Mary on this project.
One of the core hurdles for the Braver Angels team as they worked to help the school was to establish strong relationships with families and the school community, so as to avoid parent misinterpretation of Braver Angels’ goals with this initiative. Roach was more than willing to assist, meeting with the PTA to keep parents informed while also sending out letters and helpful links that Mary had provided.
“So there was a lot of legwork that happened. This isn’t just, we walked in and did the workshops and walked out,” Mary said.
Hosting Braver Angels programming at the high school level posed unique challenges. Beyond the task of getting parents on board, the team also needed to get students excited to participate.
“One thing we did that was different was that the students were assigned to this. With Braver Angels, you sign up, you volunteer, you know what it’s about. We had to really build in some buy-in,” said Mary.
Mary worked with her own former fifth grade students, now seniors in the same school, who helped her tailor her messaging to the audience. The workshop taught skills to help students have tough conversations, using the often-messy discourse of political issues to examine concrete methods to present an argument while also showing respect.
“We had to talk about, as kids, how you respectfully exit a conversation. You wouldn’t want to charge out on a teacher or a parent and get in big trouble; you don’t have the same power as an adult,” Mary said.
Student takeaways and pathways forward
Exiting a conversation was just one of several topics covered in this workshop. Students reflected on the many skills they had learned at the event’s close, writing them down as a group:
“I learned how to make someone’s voice heard.”
“I learned how to soften flat-out disagreements.”
“I learned how to ask real and honest questions.”
“I learned how to have constructive arguments that will lead to solutions.”
“I learned how to understand the intentions behind certain questions and de-escalate/respond accordingly.”
“I learned the importance of using personal anecdotes to humanize an argument.”
Braver Angels Director of Events Randy Lioz was a close partner in the development and execution of this project, and reflected on the need to equip high schoolers with instruction on how to disagree productively.
“Kids are conducting their entire social life virtually … and when that happens, their development of these types of communication skills I think gets seriously stunted,” said Randy. “So there’s definitely a need for this sort of intervention.”
The important work undertaken by this high school did not end at these initial events, but has instead been flourishing into a lasting partnership with Braver Angels. Most recently, parents from the school have begun plans with Braver Angels to hold Red/Blue workshops for their parent community, while also becoming more involved with the Braver Angels community itself.
A national headline about their yearbook was a rude awakening for this school, and it prompted a daunting task of depolarization. How could they serve students, faculty, and parents better? More specifically, how could they open respectful conversation throughout the school community?
Principal Roach has been overjoyed at the result of their first steps with Braver Angels, and she expressed something that many in our community know so well – a desire to dig even deeper into the opportunities, lessons, and enduring life skills that come through the work of depolarization.