- by Sarah Brown
Last summer, I experienced the true impact of an effective dialog. Parts of this were through my role as a camp counselor for fourth and fifth graders. Between canoeing and archery, I started teaching my children about the effects of the little actions we take, such as creating trash and wasting water. The kids and I ended up having powerful conversations about our world. Often, one child would start with a fact they had learned, "There is floating garbage in the ocean that is more than twice the size of Texas." Then others would respond with the myriad of things they knew. It was striking to me how engaged they became with each other's dialog. Our conversations convinced some of the kids to shift from the constant use of plastic cups to carrying a reusable water bottle. I even caught one of my kids pulling plastic cups deep out of a trashcan to put them in the recycling. A small amount of dialog helped these kids to think deeply about their day to day actions.
In addition to educating children this summer, I had the opportunity to intern with Shari Melto (see board of directors page) to work on a dialog about the environment. I helped Ms. Melto facilitate Climate Cafes for high school students at GOMI meetings and at a teacher conference. A Climate Cafe is a discussion-based learning tool designed to mold environmental leaders with exceptional listening abilities. As with the conversations with my camp children, Climate Cafes use dialog to generate change. A Climate Cafe starts with four roles. There is a speaker, a paraphraser, a questioner, and a contributor. A dilemma is presented, and all members have a few minutes to make a mind map. Afterward, one person explains their ideas without interruption. The next person then restates what the first person said in their own words. The third person then asks a question to unravel the idea further. The last person adds a suggestion to the plan. The roles rotate until everyone has had a chance to direct the conversation. In the end, unstructured dialog emerges, yet the tone is maintained of listening and staying receptive to others' thoughts.
At the dinner table and in the classroom, conversations are flipped into debates when a disagreement arises. This often leaves participants feeling bitter and detached. Communicating in a way that focuses on each member and requires their neutral feedback creates higher productivity. I believe that this way of problem-solving will break through disabling disagreements. The roles of Climate Cafes challenge all members to listen and rephrase without criticizing. Climate Cafes are powerful tools that connect people instead of dividing them.
I am also a student at Phillips Exeter. In my day-to-day life during the school year, the Harkness method has pushed my peers and me to discuss issues at the table in ways similar to Climate Cafes. The Harkness method is a teaching style and bases education on the discussion of students. During my freshmen year, it became clear that nothing could be gained from classes unless people welcomed opposing ideas to their own. Whether in math class, thinking through different approaches to a complicated problem, or in religion class, thinking about the morality of euthanasia, we need to listen fully to those around us to learn. There are no assigned roles at the Harkness table, yet I have learned to donate ideas, to listen without immediate refutal, to ask fruitful questions, and to build on others' points. These skills are important for communication, and yet much of the population does not have them: This is where Climate Cafes come in.
We want to spread Climate Cafes to harness the full power of them. I know they would be a great addition to classrooms and office training. As with the kids at my camp and the students at my school, we need to get the rest of the population to start talking. We need to take action together.
When I think about my kids pulling plastic cups out of the trash, high schoolers taking action with the ecological education of others, and my peers listening in the classroom, it helps me to think positively about the future. I know that through effective dialog we can begin where it is most important: in the interactions that drive us to create lasting change.
I am a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy and an advocate for sustainability. From a young age, I went to after school Audubon programs and loved to hike in the woods with my family. I learned about the interconnectedness of our ecosystems and fell in love with nature itself. Later, when I learned the earth as we know it is threatened, I panicked. I am still panicking but now trying to turn these feelings into actions. I know that we need to take dramatic measures, and I know that I can be a part of it. Next year I will be attending Princeton, and I plan to study Civil and Environmental Engineering.