Discussing Equity: Using Protocols to Deepen Conversation and Raise Intellectual Engagement

Using protocols in your classes when discussing equity or other sensitive topics will allow structured conversation, thoughtful listening, and pausing to deepen intellectual engagement and mutual understanding.

The following material is adapted from a presentation given by Dr. Patricia Virella, Professor of Teaching and Learning, Montclair State University. 

The Challenges of Discussing Equity

  • Increased polarization in society
    • Lack of ability to agree about realities and accept facts
    • Increased violence/threat of violence
    • Unwillingness to engage with differing opinions
  • Our broader context
    • Multiple topics that are hot button issues
    • Disagreement about what’s most important – the “Oppression Olympics”
    • Feeling that certain people aren’t allowed to take up space right now or weigh in on issues: “Ugh! Equity again!”
  •  Our virtual realities
    • Loss of informal processing space –such as engaging in “watercooler conversations”
    • Limitations on non-verbal communication
    • Competing for participants’ attention

As Derald Wing Sue (2013) summarizes: “Race talk is generally filled with intense and powerful emotions (Bell, 2003), creates a threatening environment for participants (Sue et al., 2011), reveals major differences in worldviews or perspectives (Bryan, Wilson, Lewis, & Wills, 2012; Young, 2003), and often results in disastrous consequences such as a hardening of biased racial views (Zou & Dickter, 2013). Unless such topical discussions are instigated in some manner, the majority of people in interracial settings would prefer to avoid them and/or to minimize and dilute their importance and meaning (Valentine, Prentice, Torres, & Arellano, 2012).”

Despite its Challenges, Discussing Equity Presents Many Opportunities

  • Pew Research (2020) has found younger US generations (specifically Gen Z) to have greater diversity in race and ethnicity and a greater openness to engage with and confront social inequity. 
  • Wing Sue (2013): Discussion allows for fruitful engagement with critical topics.
  • Glenn Singleton: “There is a continuum that goes from silence to violence in this racial paradigm. And in between that continuum of silence and violence is conversation.” (Motley, 2020, 26:30)

Why to Use Protocols to Discuss Equity

Defining Protocols:

the official procedure governing affairs of state or diplomatic occasions

-the established code of procedure or behavior in any group, organization, or situation

The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English

Protocols offer structure in classroom discussion, which helps students engage and learn.

Why use protocols for discussing equity?


  • Make work transparent
  • Enrich the learning environment
  • Ensure practice for group speaking & participation

Protocols Assist by

  • Effectively providing a space and structure for learners to work independently and dependently – the focus is on the thinking
  • Providing scaffolds for learning for students who need extra assistance
  • Inviting collaboration and a natural level of challenge for advanced students – they teach, share, facilitate and co-construct knowledge
  • Making learning more interesting, through work in heterogeneous groups
  • Cultivating culturally competent classrooms which results in deeper learning experiences for all students.
How To Use Protocols in the Classroom
  1. Prepare both students and yourself intellectually for difficult conversations
    • Consider student perspectives: Viewpoints may be wrapped up in personal identities, influenced by family members, or connected to religious beliefs. Challenging an idea may feel like a personal challenge – vary the way you respond.
    • Lead with your goals: Contextualize your discussion. Explicitly state why you all are having the discussion and what you hope students get out of it.
    • Provide pre-work: Ask students to complete an assignment in advance of the discussion. Let them reflect on the topic. It doesn’t have to be submitted!
    • Use disciplinary modes of thinking: Consider providing students with the appropriate disciplinary modes of thinking on the topic. For example, when they share, is there a certain type or level of evidence you expect them to apply to their reasoning? Are there theoretical arguments you want them to apply?
    • Establish guidelines for discussions: Norms are helpful (Singleton, 2021).
    • Be candid about the challenges of the discussion: Keep it real about the challenges of having a conversation about this topic. Use trigger warnings.
    • Warm up first: Start small, and then go bigger or more complex. For example, when talking about issues of racist harm, start with a video such as Danger of a Single Story and ask students if they have experienced a single story, etc. Model what you expect. You can also set an example early by being vulnerable. For example, you can start by sharing your story (i.e.: “I want to start by sharing the microaggressions I’ve experienced…”) 
  2. Facilitate Difficult Conversations
    • Provide the framework & structure: Present the protocol (see protocol suggestions below). Balance opportunities for reflection and discussion.
    • Actively manage the discussion: Be ready to prompt students, follow up, or ask for evidence of their claims.
    • Address the difficulty: If there is hesitancy in getting the conversation started, address that. Be ready to assert any coursework and disciplinary framework. Also admit that this may be hard for you as well.
    • Return to the protocol if the wheels start to fall off: Lean into the structure if a conversation goes sideways. Remember to set timers for each section – this allows for closure in sections and structure. 
    • Be ready to defer the conversation: If the conversation gets off topic or too heated, close the conversation. Explain the reason for the deferral and give students time to process but be ready to revisit. Use “ELMO” as shorthand for this action (“Enough, let’s move on”).
    • Confront inappropriate language: Respond directly to microaggressions. Remember our discomfort as professors has less impact than the discomfort experienced by marginalized students.
  3. Address Problems During Difficult Conversations
    • Getting started: Students can be reluctant to get down to work in the discussion. Think about the protocol you choose. Does it allow them opportunities to speak in groups? To reflect? Is the protocol itself equitable?
    • Losing control
      • Develop ground rules, and remind students of them.
      • Use proximity. Stand next to the student or in a close proximity.
      • Address the problem head on when necessary (calling in vs. calling out
      • Try not to get rattled. Be aware of your own triggers prior to the conversation.
    • Dealing with conversation monopolizers
      • Use discussion prompts such as “Let’s hear from someone else”.
      • Provide a structure around sharing out such as “I’ll call on 2 people”.
      • Do not allow a student to speak for an inordinate amount of class time. 
      • Be prepared to interrupt. 
  4. Follow Up After a Difficult Conversation
    • Synthesize the discussion: Bring together themes, how it relates back to the course topic and the stated goals. You can also provide an opportunity for students to silently reflect – the purpose is to give them a space to process.
    • Debrief: Ask students what they thought of how it went. How did the group manage the conversation? How did the protocol help or hinder?
    • Share resources: Be ready to share any on-campus resources that some students may need in processing the difficult conversation.
Sample Protocols
Resources and References

Davis, B.G. (1995). Tactics for Effective Questioning. In: Tools for Teaching, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, pp. 85-88. 

Hammond, Z. (2020, April 1). The Power of Protocols for Equity. ASCD.

Haslam, R.E. (2019). Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In. Seed the Way LLC. [opens as PDF]

Motley, C. (Host). (2020, August 25). Race — Talking with family and friends. (No. 4) [Audio podcast episode]. In Together for Change. Strive Together. 

Pace, D. (2003). Controlled Fission: Teaching Supercharged Subjects. College Teaching, 51(2), 42–45. 

Pew Research Center (2020, May 14). On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far. By Kim Parker and Ruth Igielnek. 

Singleton, G. E. (2021). Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools and Beyond. (3rd ed.). SAGE Publications. 

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). Making the Most of “Hot Moments” in the Classroom. [opens as PDF]

Wing Sue, D (2013). Race Talk: The Psychology of Racial Dialogues. The American Psychologist, [s. l.], v. 68, n. 8. 

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

12.14.22 CK