Windham High School Students Practice Skills in Civic Engagement and Dialogue with Elected Officials

Approximately 20 Windham High School (WHS) students participated in three separate day-long retreats entitled the “Can We? Project”. Building up to the third retreat, students learned the skills of ‘listening to understand’ through a series of story exchanges. Then, using what they learned in the first retreat, students practiced their listening skills by discussing divisive topics at the second retreat where students chose political and social issues they deemed essential.

On the last day of the Can We? Project retreat, Wednesday, Dec. 7th, students practiced civic engagement skills by presenting their perspectives on their areas of concern to elected officials from the Windham Town Council and the RSU 14 School Board.

Students shared concerns from a global and local perspective ranging from various social, political, and environmental topics.

The students only had 1 ½ hours to choose from one of the issues established by the group to develop an argument. After their presentations, the elected officials were offered an opportunity to ask questions or give an opposing viewpoint to consider.

WHS English teacher, and Can We? Project liaison Chelsea Scott said four student groups and one teacher group presented to the officials in about an hour.

“The student’s level of courage was admirable,” Scott said. “They transformed feelings of anxiety into action and used the little time they had to prepare to create insightful presentations.”

School board member and chair, Kate Brix, was impressed with the students and the Can We? Project process, stating that it was a powerful example of the importance of student voice.

“Student engagement is a core belief of RSU 14’s strategic plan, and the students of this project were extremely articulate and respectful as they presented their viewpoint on a topic important to them,” she said. “The students I met clearly illustrated that they care and think deeply about issues that impact all our lives. I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with them and know that the skills they learned will be put to good use beyond their high school years.”

Town Council member and chair Mark Morrison said the project was timely and a valuable lesson in learning respectful dialogue between people with differing viewpoints.

“We saw the students apply and follow the program process with their presentations which stressed presenting respectfully, listening, and asking questions in a way that did not make the dialogue personal,” Morrison said. “I hope this program continues so the students learn the skills needed to effectively communicate so the focus is on the ideas where the pros and cons can be discussed and measured, not on the person. I hope I’m invited back to participate in another discussion.”

After the presentations, the students had an opportunity to reflect upon what they learned most.

“I realized I need to do more research about my subject,” stated senior Teddy Becker.

Junior Mareena Batsungnern said participating in the Can We? Project helped develop her skills in leadership. “It has also given me the courage and motivation to voice my beliefs to others.”

Junior Griffin Moreau said the Can We? Project taught him something that many of us try to learn in an attempt at deep listening. “The thing I think that I learned the most is, ‘be comfortable with silence’. It is something that I have struggled with all my life and have only started to realize the answer to and the Can We? project has helped with that.”

Scott stated that the Can We? Project was instrumental in empowering the students to truly listen to each other and discuss divisive topics with empathy and a desire to understand rather than to react.

“Participants have expressed that they feel supported, surprised, and inspired by this program and that they now have the tools and knowledge to participate in their own democracy,” she said.

Briefly, the Can We? Project was developed collaboratively between the Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement from Waynflete School and the Maine Policy Institute. The mission is to allow high school students the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue across different perspectives.

All three retreats were held at WHS and guided by John Holdridge, the Director of the Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement, and Jacob Posik, the Director of Communications from the Maine Policy Institute. The twenty students were self-selected to participate and represented a true cross-section of ages, academic foci, family experiences and interests.

Students will have the opportunity to expand their experiences with other high school students across the state who also participated in the project, taking their experiences and practice of civil conversation and dialogue to the next level. In addition, WHS teachers who participated in the retreats plan to incorporate the project as an initiative for the whole school.

A thank you goes to the following elected officials who gave the gift of listening and allowing students to practice skills of civic engagement and dialogue respectfully. Thank you to Windham Town Council members Mark Morrison, Dave Nadeau, and Nick Kalogerakis. RSU 14 school board members (Kate Brix, Kate Leveille, Char Jewell, and Jessica Bridges) and former State Representative Patrick Corey.