Dear Adult Leaders: Give Students an Organized Platform to Discuss Hard Subjects

Patton Byars (center) walks in the Chapin Labor Day parade with his Teenage Republican chapter and Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. (Photo courtesy of Patton Byars)

This piece is part of “Dear Adult Leaders: Listen to Youth,” a four-week series produced in collaboration with America’s Promise Alliance to elevate student voices in the national conversation as schools and districts navigate how to educate our country’s youth in a global pandemic. In this series, students write open letters to adult leaders and policymakers about their experiences and how, from their perspectives, the American education system should adapt. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our other coverage of issues affecting young people here. This week’s letters focus on the issue of providing meaningful learning in a COVID-19 environment.

To South Carolina high school teachers and administrators,

I believe learning is more meaningful when students have a platform to engage in and discuss difficult world topics. With the current divisive political and social climate, all classrooms should have a platform to discuss hard but important topics to create a more meaningful learning experience. By doing so, we can begin to end the current partisan atmosphere and create a more understanding, less fragmented society.

I have had that great privilege over the past year and a half as a student at the River Bluff High School Center for Law and Global Policy. In the Center for Law and Global Policy, we learn a great deal about the United States government and our laws. The center also encourages robust civil discourse on current affairs.

Participating in this structured debate has become my favorite thing to do, because it strengthens many of my beliefs and challenges others. We can debate contentious issues that are sometimes hard to discuss at first, but by learning more about both sides we gain a true understanding and compassion for those who are affected by them. We have, for example, discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has enriched my understanding to hear both sides of such a complex issue.

Instead of just opening a history book and taking notes, we learn from interacting with other students and teachers about the real stories, the law and the leaders who have made the tough decisions. I brag to friends and others about how fun school has become.

Understanding the different motivations behind Black Lives Matter, initiatives to defund police, ending foreign wars and even developing more transparency in government should be important to every high school student today. It really is up to our generation to combat this toxic environment and encourage more students to engage in meaningful learning through civil discourse.

Some ways to accomplish this programmatically is to have a prepared topic of conversation in the classroom or via Zoom, a class research project on a topic followed with a discussion, or possibly through a case study followed with a class Socratic seminar. Learning this way, during a hybrid or fully virtual schedule, can help to create strong memories that last a lifetime rather than just being forced to go through the motions of virtual learning.

When discussing some of the more emotional issues, it is best to have the teacher start the discussion by announcing the topic, providing both sides of the issue, and then fairly mediating the groups to ensure all points are better understood. By doing it this way, students take the discussion more seriously. Some teachers might feel uncomfortable allowing students more of this kind of “structured freedom,” but it creates a rich learning experience for everyone.

For all of these reasons, I encourage you to support more deliberate and organized civil discourse in classrooms throughout our state.


Patton Byars, 17
River Bluff High School
Lexington, South Carolina

This series highlighting the perspectives of American youth is in part sponsored by Pure Edge, Inc., a foundation that equips educators and learners with strategies for combating stress and developing social, emotional and academic competencies.

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