As an educational institution that values open discussion, meaningful engagement, and mutual respect, Ashley Hall prioritizes equipping students with the tools and experiences they need to participate in civil discourse.  Beginning in the Lower School through the application of Ashley Hall’s Hallmarks, this foundation builds with the School’s spiral curriculum to culminate in graduates who confidently speak for themselves as well as openly listen to others.

“Civil discourse is the practice of engaging in conversation for the purpose of seeking and fostering understanding.  It involves the commitment of all parties to a respect for truth, a practice of active listening and purposeful speaking, and an understanding that the cultivation of civil discourse is not a right but a responsibility.” —Ashley Hall’s Statement on Civil Discourse

In October, Ashley Hall released its Statement on Civil Discourse, a document that encapsulates the School’s long-established approach to productive and meaningful discussion.  “The result of a collaborative effort between faculty and administrators to articulate how we embrace honesty, responsibility, and integrity as the guiding standards for daily interaction, this document represents our continued commitment to nurturing and modeling a culture of civil discourse as integral to campus life,” said Head of School Jill Muti.  Founded on Ashley Hall’s Hallmarks— Compassionate, Intelligent, Worldly, Creative, Collaborative, Purposeful, and Discerning—the Statement on Civil Discourse serves as a blueprint for helping students articulate their perceptions as well as grow in their interactions with others.

Lower School Foundations

“Ashley Hall is committed to teaching students the social, emotional, and intellectual skills needed to sustain civil discourse.” —Ashley Hall’s Statement on Civil Discourse

Lower School students begin learning the foundation for meaningful expression and interaction that eventually will support their ability to engage in civil discourse.  “Social-emotional learning is in everything the girls do—how they have Responsive Classroom greetings at the start of the day, how they do their morning meetings, how they come up with the class rules, and how their teachers model civil discourse and mediate conflicts,” said Lower School Counselor Jennifer Vaughan.  “It is in the way our PE coaches encourage sportsmanship, the books chosen for literature, the emphasis made in history classes, and the very selection of courses offered.  Most importantly, it is in how we treat our students and each other and what we encourage in our classes.”  This all-encompassing approach creates an environment where civility is integral to each student’s day. 

“Responsive Classroom is the curriculum that we use in Lower School to teach social and emotional skills,” noted Lower School Director Polly Kronsberg.  “We teach the girls how to actively listen to one another, how to have empathy for others, and how to show compassion.  All of these skills relate to civil discourse: how we engage one another in a thoughtful and purposeful way.”  Through their Wellness curriculum, students learn social-emotional skills tied to the Hallmarks, which help with real-world applications.  “Starting in kindergarten and continuing onward, the girls learn strategies to regulate and manage strong emotions,” Vaughan said.  “They are taught that they are responsible for themselves, including their behavior, actions, and speech.  They are encouraged to think before they speak, to filter their thoughts, to consider other points of view, and to learn the term ‘empathy’ and practice it in role plays.”  Relationship building is also a vital aspect to each girl’s development.  “Social-emotional learning occurs when we model how to handle when we invariably make mistakes and how we try to repair the relationship,” Vaughan continued.  “Civil discourse is more effectively learned in relationships, and the relationship between teacher and student and how students see the adults in their lives treat one another are absolutely key.”

As part of the Lower School, the Intermediate Program takes part in its comprehensive Wellness programming and continues to emphasize the Hallmarks and their applicability to everyday life.  For example, at the beginning of this school year, each Advisory group collaborated on the creation of its own charter.  “The charters have been a wonderful way to continue the discussion on behaviors that promote our Hallmarks,” said Intermediate Program faculty member Katie Pérez-Phillips ’07.  “This initiative was student-led and based on a Yale-designed program that facilitates discussions on expressing emotions and group expectations around behaviors.”   Featuring words of affirmation and positivity, the charters record students’ efforts to both understand and apply each Hallmark’s meaning.  “The charters are a way to inspire,” asserted Intermediate Program faculty member Kiki Sweigart.  “They create an environment that incorporates students’ core values and spirit of community.”

Intermediate Program students also become more directly engaged with the ideals of civil discourse and begin offering their own contributions to the dialogue process.  “In October, all fifth and sixth grade English classes discussed the Statement on Civil Discourse and sent their input to Upper School students who are working to develop a statement incorporating student perspectives,” noted Intermediate Program Coordinator Mary Schweers.  “We talked about the connection to the Hallmarks, kindness, willingness to listen thoughtfully (even if you disagree), and inclusivity.”  In addition to leading class discussions, students shared their thoughts on civil discourse in action through reflective essays.

Upper School Applications

“Students can navigate complex, nuanced, emotionally-driven conversations only by establishing a firm basis of trust built on the commitment of community members to the School’s Hallmarks.” —Ashley Hall’s Statement on Civil Discourse

Building upon the Lower School’s social-emotional learning anchored by the Hallmarks, the Upper School prioritizes opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and actively participate in civil discourse.  “Our girls get good practice at handling thoughtful discussion and respectful listening in all of our classrooms,” said Anne Weston, Ph.D., ’73, the Assistant Head of School and Upper School Director.  “Our Statement on Civil Discourse gives us a chance to state our community beliefs, expectations, and norms in a more formal way, and our girls will have a chance to translate this into their school environment, reflecting on what they need and want to feel supported and valued as they express themselves.”

During a special Assembly attended in person by seniors and watched virtually by the rest of the Upper School, Head of School Jill Muti shared why civil discourse is so vital to a community.  “Freedom of thought and expression, especially in an educational institution like Ashley Hall, is essential to allowing us to be curious and explore what we do not understand,” she asserted.  “However, we must all recognize that along with this independence comes responsibility, not only to oneself but also to those with whom we live in community.  Because our School embodies a rich tapestry of many different perspectives and viewpoints, we must affirm a shared set of values for campus dialogue to guide us in how we engage with each other in productive ways.”

To deepen their understanding of the universal tenets of civility found within the Statement on Civil Discourse, students worked within their English classes to analyze the document and collaborate on composing their own rules for class discussions that encourage civil interactions.  “Creating the class contracts forced students to reflect on effective and ineffective discussions and what they need to do as well as how they need to act in order to have effective, engaging, and civil discussions on difficult topics,” noted Upper School faculty member Leslie Rowland-Yeh, who coordinated the classroom activities for the English Department.  “Preparing them in-depth also allayed fears and anxiety about such discussions.  Clarifying that we would discuss—not debate or persuade—was an important distinction.”  An Upper School student committee advised by Rowland-Yeh will review the submissions from each class to ultimately create a comprehensive school contract.

An Ongoing Mission

“We recognize that we may not always reach agreement with others but that we can still demonstrate awareness, reflection, empathy, and respect and seek to understand the feelings and perspectives of others.” —Ashley Hall’s Statement on Civil Discourse

In striving to fulfill its mission to produce educated women who are independent, ethically responsible, and prepared to meet the challenges of society with confidence, Ashley Hall is committed to fostering a learning environment built upon a foundation of respect, openness, and civility.  “At Ashley Hall, you are given a multitude of opportunities to use your voice not only to express yourself but also to support others in doing the same,” Muti told students.  “We are fortunate to be a community that strives to make civil discourse woven into the fabric of our School by practicing it on a daily basis.”  The value of that commitment is a foundation worth building upon. 

“The underlying values of civil discourse are embedded in Ashley Hall’s mission, and our Hallmarks offer a guiding framework for conceptualizing the value of civil discourse within our community.” —Ashley Hall’s Statement on Civil Discourse

Ashley Hall’s Statement on Civil Discourse

Post & Courier Commentary: How to Model Civil Discourse