Bridge Partners: A Strategy for Building Discussion from Common Ground

by Tina Beene

You may already know that my Seidlitz Education colleagues are some of the most intriguing people from some of the most interesting places around the world. I love and respect them more than I can say (or that I would say in a blog post because, eww, this public emoting is gross), but sometimes I feel a pang of envy when they share stories of languages and cultures so different from my own. I find myself wishing my story crossed oceans and borders in that same way so that, when someone asked me where I’m from, I’d have more than a one-word reply. 

As a lifelong Texas resident, I’ve always been from “here” in a technical sense, but the urban life I lead as an adult barely resembles my rural upbringing. That one word doesn’t tell you that I’m from a close-knit, small community in the center of the state, unwitnessed by outsiders or interstates. Or that virtually none of my relatives live outside the county in which I was born, or that I didn’t see MTV until college. (I do have one cousin who lives in California, but the family doesn’t like to talk about that.) I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, get a passport, or eat sushi. The fact that I moved to the city after graduation is a reason to question my sanity (and perhaps my morals, but they don’t say that to my face). 

After a life split evenly between these two worlds, I’ve found that focusing on common ground is crucial for maintaining relationships. I approach each conversation as a chance to learn about someone else’s perspective and to find areas in which we agree—before discussing points of contention. This approach is reflected in an adjustment I’ve incorporated into a common strategy we utilize in our 7 Steps training, often around the topic of rural versus city life. 

Why It Works

The Bridge Partners activity allows students to visually and physically represent division and reunification around a polarizing statement, such as Winter is better than summer or city living is better than rural living. The activity is structured to encourage complete sentences and minimize barriers to a successful discussion. 

In the beginning, when students are most intimidated, they respond physically. The first verbal interaction occurs with like-minded classmates who further validate their thinking to lower their affective filter. This part feels really good to their brains! 

In the second portion, students listen respectfully to ideas that support and refute their position. This part doesn’t feel as good because sometimes they have to hear things they disagree with. Reasons are expressed as one positive, then one negative, then positive again, etc., which helps ease that discomfort. Additionally, students have a set purpose for listening to the other side. 

In the final phase of the activity, students reiterate their position and must choose the best argument they heard for their opponent’s position. They do not have to agree with this statement but simply acknowledge that it is a strong argument.  

Keep in Mind

Even though we endeavor to create classrooms where students feel comfortable sharing opinions and making mistakes, some students may still be reluctant to express or even form their views. For some, submission and compliance are cultural and familial values, the defiance of which carries the risk of social and even physical retribution. 

Over time, it will become clear that this classroom is a safe place to question, clarify, and even change your mind. Be patient with the students who take the longest to trust the process—it’s often true that life has given them plenty of reasons to be skeptical.  

How It Works 

  1. Display and read aloud a statement in the ____ is better than ____ format. Invite students to move to one side of the room if they agree and to move to the other side if they disagree. This relocation is done silently. 
  1. Invite students to form groups of three (or partners if numbers are small) and discuss why their side is correct. During these two to three minutes, their goal is to verbally share as many reasons to support their side as possible. (Tip: Before releasing groups to talk, give students a signal to listen and look for so they’ll know when it’s time to stop talking.) 
  1. Ask students to form two single-file lines, remaining on their respective sides. Remind students that they are expected to remain silent during this next portion.
  1. Beginning with the first student on the affirmative side, have each student share one reason to support their position. 

Example: “Rural living is better than city living because you can see the stars at night.” 

  1. The next student to speak is the first in line for the negative side. This student does not refute the previous statement but simply offers a reason to support their position using a complete sentence. 

Example: “City living is better than rural living because of access to medical facilities.” 

  1. Allow the process to continue until all students have shared an answer. No reasons can be repeated, so students at the end of the line often must get creative. If they’re stumped, sometimes brainstorming together again for thirty seconds can free up new ideas. 

The Bridge

  1. Ideally, students would have split evenly between the two sides and can simply be partnered up with the classmate directly across from them in line order. However, that’s about as likely as an unexpected walkthrough at the very high point of your lesson. Thus, two affirmatives may be paired with one negator or vice versa.
  1. Have students take turns sharing the following statements with their partners/groups: 

I believe that ____ is better than ____ because _____, but your side has a valid point about…

Example: I believe that city living is better than rural living because of high-speed internet access, but your side has a point about how nice it is to have privacy from your neighbors.”

  1. After sharing, have students return to their seats and complete the same stem in writing before moving on to the next component of the lesson. 

Making it Work for You

The essential portion of this activity, where students validate each other’s positions even as they disagree, can be incorporated into almost any content area or topic. The more frequently students engage in this exchange, the more they’ll appreciate each others’ perspectives and opinions and the less protective they’ll become of their own. And that’s when the real fun begins! 

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