Superintendent’s Corner: Modeling Civil Discourse

By on November 2, 2018

“So let us begin anew–remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
–John Fitzgerald Kennedy

We have all heard it before, the proverbial “kids today” commentary. Kids make mistakes, we all do. But the administrators, teachers, and I have the utmost faith that students are learning how to appropriately engage in society. Through our experiences, the educators in Verona have found that our students are, for the most part, respectful, honorable, and striving to become better versions of themselves every day, and on the occasion our students make mistakes, whether it be in person or on social media, our staff works with our students who are often receptive to feedback to do better. One needs to look no further than current events to understand that digital citizenship and character building are more important today than ever before.

The internet allows each of us to keep up with current news and happenings. Social media, a powerful instrument that is useful for creating dialogue, sparking critical thinking, and sharing ideas, should never be a substitute for real face-to-face and authentic interactions. In our school district, we use technology such as Twitter, email, and our website to communicate important aspects of how our students and staff are achieving to make Verona the most robust learning community possible for our kids. However, sometimes, we see people use social media and emails in ways that set a bad example for our young people.

History books are filled with pictures that offer us great insight into important events, yet many individuals in these photos will be forever remembered negatively and at the mercy of generations of people who have grown to see the world from a more informed and more compassionate lens. Moreover, many individuals throughout history have made statements and are now vilified, yet they no longer have the means to undo the damage. Our small and engaged community has experienced its fair share of commentary. Whether it be remarks made in public, on social media, or in the local media sources, it’s important to remember that facts matter and civil discourse goes a long way.

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My superintendent colleagues at the Bergen County Association of School Administrators have adapted the following set of guiding principles entitled the Social Media Compact as tenets to follow:

In the Verona Public Schools we continue to make strides to support our students as they learn to embody our core values:

We do this by modeling civil discourse for our students and engaging appropriately amongst our staff members. These behaviors and values are expectations for everyone in our learning community. I recently had the privilege of spending time with some of our third grade students. I was fortunate to be able to observe and participate in their classroom book discussions. During this time, I witnessed our students successfully modeling appropriate ways to respectfully agree and disagree on ideas. Through dialogue, our students used prompts that have them frame questions and comments such as, “I’m not sure I agree with what ______ said because ______” and “I’m not sure I understood you when you said ______. Could you say more about that?” This does not happen by accident, our teachers are doing a wonderful job cultivating this type of constructive dialogue, which are lessons that will extend well into adulthood.

As adults and role models within our community, our behavior matters. When we are unclear on an issue, we must make a concerted effort to ask the questions appropriately, and avoid jumping to assumptions. We should refrain from taking things personally and never attack another’s character. Just as we teach our students to be upstanders, we too have to model upstander behaviors when someone is acting out.

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We can do this by reminding each other that our children are watching our behaviors, and our children may adopt this bad behavior and struggle to navigate through a society that abhors such negativity. This should always be done constructively by letting our neighbors know boundaries exist and inappropriateness will not be tolerated. We have much to be proud of in our strong and tightly knit community. All of us, collectively, are the ones who set the tone. Our actions are a reflection of the type of community we are and aspire to be. Learning to be human and humane is important. The choice is up to us, doing what is right is always worth it. We must expect as much of ourselves as we do our children.

Thank you for your continuous support and for upholding the mission and values of the Verona Public Schools.

All my best,

Dr. Rui Dionisio
Superintendent of Schools

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