Twilight and Civic Education: The ‘Dialog macht Schule’ (Dialogue Sets a Precedence) Mentoring Program

Trained dialogue moderators from the ‘Dialog macht Schule’ mentoring program spend two hours a week in classrooms where they work with young people in a participatory dialogue manner to address topics such as homeland, racism and justice. Currently the program is active in Berlin, Hamburg, Hanover and Stuttgart. Civic education work like this also contributes to preventive work, as explained by the program’s founders Hassan Asfour and Siamak Ahmadi in an interview with Aylin Yavas.

Hassan and Siamak, how did the idea for Dialog macht Schule come about?

Hassan Asfour: The Federal Agency for Civic Education initiated the pilot project ‘Youth, Religion, Democracy’ in collaboration with the Robert Bosch Foundation in 2009. The idea was to establish new ways how to approach civic education for an ever-growing group of young people who can no longer be reached through the classic concepts and who don’t identify themselves with society. We started to place young people (peers) – who either have an immigration background themselves or who have in-depth intercultural experiences – at so-called ‘segregated’ schools where they can work with the students using a long-term, participatory dialogue approach. Siamak and I got involved in 2011. One of the key questions then was how to link the everyday experience of the youths there with politics and society in general

photo_2015-07-29_11-36-41 (2)We still stick to this approach and that’s how we started ‘Dialogue Sets a Precedence’ in 2013. We divide the class into two groups with a maximum of 13 pupils per group. We then meet for a 2-hour session every week. This is either a regular lesson or a mandatory extracurricular group. In the first, exploratory phase, qualified dialogue monitors establish a basis of trust and then gradually begin a dialogue with the students about topics they are interested in and, above all, take the students and their concerns seriously.

The better the mutual trust, the easier it is for the moderators to enter a conversation with the youths. This is important because the discussions havepartially, to do with very personal and difficult topics such as discrimination or family problems. Here the dialogue moderators are also expected to share their own experience in order to strengthen the relationship of trust.

difference. The goal is to become active. We conclude the sessions with a joint project. One of these projects is now in progress in Berlin. As part of it, students took photos and made audio recordings to present the neighborhoods they live in. The images will be shown in a museum and they will have an opportunity to get public recognition.

What kinds of topics do you cover in the classrooms?

Siamak Ahmadi: There are no set topics to begin with. The dialogue moderators are open to the ideas and interests of the students. This approach is called an’adaptive instruction’. Unfortunately, however, this is put into practice much too seldom.

A specific example here: We discovered that girls in one class were talking about Robert Pattinson from the movie Twilight. They consider him as ‘the man of their dreams’. The boys agreed that Megan Fox was their dream woman. We pointed out that neither of them were Muslims. The students replied that, in this case, they would be willing to turn a blind eye. We then asked: ‘What would you do if you had a child together with that person? What religion would the child have?’ The discussion took off from here. The boys suggested: ‘We’re the men, we’ll decide that’. The girls replied: ‘No, we are the ones who carry the baby in us for nine months. We should also have somethingto say’. At one point they came up with a compromise: ‘We can wait until the child is old enough to make that decision. Until then, both religions will be practiced’. This way, we went from a casual, everyday topic to a discussion about gender roles, romance and religion. Other current topics of interest to the students might also be addressed. Charlie Hebdo becomes the topic that leads us to questions about security and freedom. From Facebook we go to data security, the NSA and freedom.

Hassan Asfour: The most important thing for us is that the students get space and time at school to talk about topics of interest . The normal school day is not made for this. We are not teachers, we use different language. We are also role models. Our age, background and socialization makes a big difference. They can talk to us about whatever they want. Often it is about their identity, for instance: ‘Where do I come from?’, ‘Where is my place in society?’, ‘Am I German, or not?’ Some of the topics that play a big role for them must be handled like a hot potato. The Middle East conflict, for example. We give them the space to address their topics and the opportunity to get to know other opinions, to be critical, to justify their opinions and to tolerate others.

Siamak Ahmadi: One goal of ‘Dialogue Sets a Precedence’ is to strengthen the students’ personal, social, moral and democratic skills. ‘Dialogue Sets a Precedence’ works preventively by trying to address the needs of students in the period when they forge their identities. We give them the space to talk about their identities in a positive framework.

Students having a so-called ‘immigration background’ don’t believe that they have the same opportunities as others. Sometimes teachers give them the impression that they expect very little of them and many feel that they are not accepted by mainstream society.

The different everyday lives and lifestyles can bring tension and it is very important that students can talk about this. We try to show them their potential through our dialogue moderators who also serve as role models: It is possible to move between two different cultural societies. You can bring these two strands together. You are needed in this society!

What is meant by the ‘participatory dialogue approach’ that you take?

Siamak Ahmadi: We try to reach the students in the way we described; by offering discussion. Through the interaction we get to know what the group is interested in. It is not always possible to reach the reasoning level. In other words, it can happen that confrontational statements are made like ‘you damned Jew!’ In this case, the dialogue moderators can confront the speaker and ask why the accusation was made. That would be the argumentation level. The other way would be the narrative level, to ask, for instance: ‘Tell me, what prompted you to say that?’ This also means that we take a step back and take a moment to think about just how the statement was meant in order to develop a fitting intervention strategy. We listen closely and try to work out what is really behind such statements. And ‘participatory’ is what follows, making the young people capable of taking action and involving the school into this process.

Hassan Asfour: ‘Participatory’ also means that the students have a say in selecting the topics because the group is where the dialogue starts.

That sounds like a promising concept. Do you also encounter difficulties? What works particularly well?

Hassan Asfour: We work with very heterogeneous groups, where some students might come from disfunctional families. They might not want to talk and it is often a long process to build a trusting relationship with them. Sometimes the students react aggressively or won’t listen to others. It is difficult to find a balance. On one hand, we want to create a safe space where everyone can say what they want to without risking a negative response. On the other hand, students’ boundaries have to be respected.

Siamak Ahmadi: Our long-term intervention efforts work well. In the meantime, we meet up with alumni to check if the program has a long-term effect. Some of the students we’ve worked with are now socially engaged at various levels.

Thank you for the interview!