One student questioned her father about his conservative views on gay rights. Another approached a friend from camp about their divergent opinions on President Trump. And a third pressed his cousin on his ardent support for guns.
In a climate of political and social divisiveness, when social media often doubles as an echo chamber, educators issued a challenge to 12th-graders at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria that seemed, at once, simple and extraordinary — find someone different from themselves, with whom they disagree on a foundational issue, and talk.
It was an exercise in listening and respectful disagreement, an opportunity for students to hear and learn from perspectives different from their own.
Students were, at first, reluctant.
“We’re really afraid of talking to people that we disagree with,” English teacher Laurel Taylor said.
On Thursday morning, two dozen English honors students clustered around lunch tables at the school, taking turns as they shared from laptops the images and words they chose to document the endeavor.
Will Murphy, 17, interviewed a cabin mate from camp who once mentioned he supported Trump. Murphy brushed past the comment back when they were in camp but revisited it for class.
He learned his friend lives in a community where most people back the president. It prompted Murphy to consider how he would be perceived if he supported a politician unpopular in his community.
“I definitely would not want to be an outsider,” Murphy conceded to classmates. “So, I kind of definitely saw where he was coming from.”
The friends delved into other political issues, finding common ground on topics including abortion.
“We found similar things and things that we can compromise on. I think it really helped and built our relationship,” Murphy said.
The conversations were guided mostly by teacher candidates studying at George Mason University. Kristien Zenkov, a professor of education at the university, said he and Taylor wanted students to value perspectives from people whose views don’t align with their own.
“We both have noticed — and we’ve talked about and lamented, and really struggled with — the tenor of political discourse in this country,” Zenkov said. “We both have just been mortified by the way we talk about difference in this country now.”
Students were directed to answer the same questions they posed to those they had interviewed.
What is it like to be you?
What is your life like?
What is it like to be known and by whom are you known?
They shared the answers with their peers, leaving class with a deeper understanding of each other.
Tania Batista was surprised a classmate she viewed as confident and outspoken battled insecurities. Marie Beke learned how a Canadian classmate’s upbringing differed from the social expectations she encountered in the Ivory Coast.
The students found they weren’t alone in navigating the uncertainties of adolescence — the pressure of what comes after high school, of balancing studies with a social life.
“I learned that they go through the same things that I go through,” Dejah Coleman, 18, said. “I learned not to judge them so quickly.”
It’s a lesson students said lawmakers and politicians should heed.
“They could do the same thing — get a better understanding of people,” Coleman said. “They don’t know what’s going on down here, in the community.”
Beke said, “I don’t think they’re listening to each other. I think they’re doing what they think is best for them and what will benefit them, not what will benefit everyone.”
The exercise at T.C. Williams was planned weeks before a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 students and teachers. It was planned before students who survived the shooting were galvanized into a force crusading for gun law changes.
Taylor, the English teacher, said the project at the Alexandria school illustrated the power of conversation to her students. But the Florida students, she said, convey “that there is a time and place to speak up and be bold.”
“It sadly overlaps,” she said. “I think all of those students wished they didn’t have a reason to speak out. . . . But I think in moments of crisis, your choice to speak up for the next potential victims says a lot about who you are.”
The Florida shooting weighed on students as they considered the state of political discourse. Murphy, the 17-year-old who questioned his friend about Trump, said he is dismayed that lawmakers seem unwilling to compromise and listen to different viewpoints on gun control.
That was evident, he said, when the Florida House of Representatives last week voted against opening debate on a bill banning the sale of assault weapons, as shooting survivors watched from the gallery of the Capitol.
“I would have been very distraught and really thought about who I was going to vote for in the next election,” Murphy said.