Yesterday’s news about the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas came as a welcome sign after days of fear, violence, and tragedy. We extend our sympathy to all those who have suffered a loss over these past two weeks and who remain worried about loved ones and friends in the region.

The conflict has evoked strong feelings here at home. A brief scan of the news and social media reveals increasingly sharp fault lines. Some of the conversations are thoughtful, nuanced, and productive. Some far less so. And, at the extremes, positions can trend to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

This is the media ecosystem our students are growing up in — one that elevates essentialization over understanding and that cabins people off into echo chambers. I have heard thoughtful conversations in our hallways at school and have also heard about less helpful exchanges on social media and in other corners. 

Schools have a responsibility to help young people understand what real civil discourse looks like, not just wait for it to emerge. Scholars like Diana Hess have done wonderful work on how to discuss controversial topics at school and how to teach students the skills they need to engage with one another in a way that leads to understanding and connection, even while disagreeing sharply.

Earlier this year, in the run up to the presidential election, alumna Abby Walsh ‘04, who works at the Council on Criminal Justice in Washington, DC, moderated a conversation between two seniors about police funding. The students modeled the behavior we should all expect of one another: identifying areas of agreement, while being both direct and thoughtful about areas of disagreement. They offered an exploration, not a sound bite, of a critical issue.

This week, a student approached us with a proposal to host a conversation around the Israel-Gaza conflict — taking the dialogue out of the caricaturized comments section of an Instagram post and into a respectful, thoughtful, moderated forum. Teachers and students are now working together to create that space next week and will invite other interested students and teachers to take part. It will not be a debate; the topic is too complex, charged, and important to simplify down into a pro/con, and that is not the BUA way. Instead, we will plan for an intimate, classroom-style discussion where students and adults can share ideas, seek to understand, and listen. 

In our classrooms, students learn — in the language of our mission — “to think critically and read deeply” and engage with one another with empathy and understanding. The hope is that they apply those same habits to the topics of the day that appropriately inspire strong passions. And we are here to help them do that.

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