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A mindful society begins in the classroom


Even before we can talk about what makes us successful, we must learn to live with each other, according to Mr. Chong Wensheng. And he strives to do this through honest conversations about difficult issues like race, religion and diversity.

Posted by Chong Wensheng, Ahmad Ibrahim High School, Outstanding Youth in Education Award 2022 Finalist

Tell us a story that shows what kind of teacher you are.

As a classroom teacher, I see my classroom as a miniature copy of the larger society, where we must find our own ways to interact and live harmoniously with different people.

I believe what psychologist Thomas Licona said: “One of the most important moral questions facing our society is, ‘How can we live with each other?'”

As young adults try to find their “place” in society, some tension between students is inevitable. But I firmly believe that there should be a balance between asserting one’s individuality and respecting others.

One of my students, Emma*, was considered an “annoying girl” by her classmates who always spoke without thinking about the feelings of others. She said something like, “Lisa* is bad at writing because she’s bad at reading.” Her harsh personality turned every lesson into a war zone with insults the norm.

I realized that the tension between the classmates was reaching its boiling point and arranged a Circle Time between Emma and several of her most vocal opponents. I’m a firm believer in the power of honest conversations, and Circle Time is a tool I use to get students talking about issues that cause disagreements between them.

It’s always hard to get the conversation going, but once students realize they have a long way to go and they can’t run away from it, they’ll talk openly and honestly.

“It’s always hard to get the conversation going, but once students realize they have a long journey ahead of them and they can’t run away from it, they’ll talk openly and honestly.”

During this conversation, I ask them to say something positive about each other. This is the most difficult and takes a long time to break through. But I want them to try to see the other person in a different perspective. After much prompting, they said, “Emma is learning well.” Another student said, “She didn’t fall asleep in class.” That was the beginning.

Then I make them share their dislikes for each other. This is a simple part, but it can easily get out of hand because students have so much to say. My role as a facilitator is to get them to think about how their comments make the other person feel.

This segment requires multiple conversations, and results cannot be achieved in a day.

I believe that deciding to empathize with others is a conscious choice. And deciding to admit your mistake is the first step in the process – the hardest.

To make Circle Time work, I need to do a lot of one-on-one time with students to hear their opinions. I try to get them to see the situation from different angles. For example, in this case I asked, “Do you really feel that way about Emma?” I asked Emma, ​​“Did your classmates really say that about you? What evidence?” and finally, “How would you like them to approach you?”

Daily conversations like this, combined with weekly Circle Time, bring breakthrough moments. In Emma’s case, she wasn’t the first to admit her mistakes. At the fifth Circle Time, one of the girls admitted to spreading rumors about Emma. An upset Emma admitted she was wrong to post negative messages about her classmates.

Mr Chong believes in the power of honest conversations through Circle Time.

This was an important moment for the group, as Emma had never admitted that she could have been wrong for years. She lost friends, went through counseling and even skipped school, but never admitted to a single mistake on her part.

A cloud seemed to have lifted.

I knew the arrow had moved when one of my classmates said, “Could you help us learn history better because your notes are so organized?”

And a simple line from Emma that made me very happy: “Next time you get an OCM (Oreo chocolate milkshake from a popular store nearby), buy me one too.”

The happy ending to this story is that Emma did indeed slowly develop friendships. At the graduation ceremony, Emma was not left out: she was hugged and photographed with her peers, whom she once considered “enemies”. Many would argue that this is a common sight at graduation. However, in the case of Emma and her peers, it was a powerful image that showed that they had overcome their differences and learned to live with and appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Describe a teaching method or tool that you find effective.

As the National Education Coordinator for Character and Citizenship Education, one of the challenges I try to address is the attitude, “If it doesn’t concern me, why should I care?” “So sad, Mr. Chong,” my students say when I talk about, say, race issues or National Service.

In the spirit of open conversation, which I am a big advocate of, and to make my students understand why these issues matter, I bring in experts who can answer my students’ questions.

So we had a speaker from the Singapore Armed Forces talking about cyber security threats. During the class, students show how much they really know about what’s going on by asking questions like, “Do you think Internet access has changed the way Singaporeans think about the country’s security?”

The National Arts Council also produced a skit about prejudice and discrimination, followed by a question and answer session. I was very pleased when one of my students commented, “We think our jokes are funny and harmless, but we never put ourselves in other people’s shoes to think how they feel.”

I want to open my students’ minds to different issues, and I use the Clarify/Sensitise/Influence (CSI) tool to have these conversations.

For example, on the topic of race, I ask about their opinion of racial diversity in Singapore or how they define casual racism. The purpose of clarification is to get students to look into their own personal beliefs and experiences.

For “sensitivity”, we talk about experiences of race in other countries and whether and how they differ from Singapore. Next, students should be forced to come to their own conclusions, guided by questions and societal norms and the consequences of their choices.

My class is racially diverse, so we have rich conversations about thinking and preconceived notions about race. For every negative comment there are upvotes and new perspectives. Every student has the right to vote and the opportunity to be heard.

However, these are pervasive societal problems that cannot be fixed overnight. Giving students a platform to have open discussion in the classroom, without fear or consequence, I believe is a step in the right direction.

You can’t see the results in one lesson. Behaviors and attitudes change through repeated reminders and increased awareness.

I used a similar approach to talk about different issues, like how Singapore plans its budget, or current affairs, like the war in Ukraine. Students put themselves in the shoes of decision makers to think through the choices they need to make and why.

It’s always hard to get the conversation going, but once students realize they have a long way to go and they can’t run away from it, they’ll talk openly and honestly.

“Seeing the positive changes in my students reminded me of my purpose as an educator, not just a teacher delivering content.”

These are not foolproof ways of creating active citizenship. But if we can get them to talk about the issues, to see different points of view and arguments, that will be enough for me for now.

Starting these discussions is challenging as a teacher, but I feel my efforts are worth it every time a student moves beyond individualistic phrases that begin with “I” to an answer that begins with “we.” It shows me that they are capable of looking after more than just their own needs and interests.

What school project or initiative are you particularly proud of?

What happens before a student shows genuine interest in national issues? A teacher who is comfortable having these conversations.

To be honest, it’s also challenging for teachers as they need to step out of their comfort zone to navigate different mindsets and perspectives. There is also a lot of background reading and understanding of what they need to do to stay up to date with the various issues that are constantly changing.

As (in-house) CCE subject leader, I work closely with my team of four specialist CCE teachers (SCTs) to inspire each teacher to engage students effectively in these issues.

To help them, I started collecting a basic resource – CCE Bytes. It’s a summary of current affairs with questions for reflection, frequently asked questions, and tips to help teachers facilitate conversations about what can be sensitive.

One example would be the race debate following Minister Lawrence Wong’s address at the IPS-RSIS Forum in 2021, or the Russia-Ukraine crisis this year. These CCE bytes act as a professional development package for teachers – a starter kit that they can then build on.

To build the confidence of faculty, I have also organized CCE sessions for the past two years with my SCT team to discuss the CCE2021 curriculum in depth.

During these sessions, we play out different facilitation strategies, discuss possible student responses, and brainstorm approaches to help students better understand the problems.

After the initial challenges, I am proud to say that peers and colleagues now come to me with new strategies and discussions of effective teaching tips and stories.

One idea was to use the Mentometer platform to make students understand common discriminatory phrases used against other races. In the more active-sounding classes, instructors use the “hot seat” method to get minority students to share their experiences and thoughts about how they’ve been treated.

There has also been a collaboration between the Head Team of the Year and the CCE committee to run weekly morning messages on, say, the dangers of posting discriminatory remarks on social media platforms or cyberbullying incidents.

Other ideas evolved into VIA (values ​​in action) classes. One of the junior middle classes has become an advocate of racial and religious discrimination. They put up posters and went to different classrooms to share challenges and “right” approaches to use when dealing with friends who may speak or act in a discriminatory manner.

These are just some of the ways in which our discussion of these topics has gone beyond the CCE lessons.

Seeing the positive changes in my students reminded me of my purpose as an educator, not just a teacher delivering content. Our role is to address and meet learning needs.

But just like students, we as teachers must also be aware of our own shortcomings by being aware of our learning gaps. Just as I believe it is important for students to be engaged in these timely discussions, we teachers must be the first to emulate these reflections by showing interest, concern, and awareness of societal issues outside of our classrooms.


Engaging students in timely discussion of public issues

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