Disagreeing Agreeably with R.E.A.L.

by Dr. Ralph Covino

They say that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Such was the case with my first set of R.E.A.L.® Discussions. To prepare, my girls had gone through each of the skills and – conceptually anyway – knew how to Relate, Excerpt, Ask, and Listen, understood the pass-off protocol, and knew the NVCs and how to use them.

Or so it seemed. They started their discussion, each group in pods of 4-6. They all spoke. There was an excessive amount of nodding and NVC use. They all agreed with each other. Every. Last. One. Each girl even thanked the one who had spoken previously, spoke words of affirmation as to her contribution, then added her own piece – sometimes related to the previous contribution, but often not. It was the single most polite discussion I had ever seen in the classroom. It was weird. If it had only happened in one class, I could have written it off as an anomaly; however, it happened across all of my three sections and those of my two colleagues teaching the same course at the same level. How could this be? 

Perhaps some context is needed. Our students who use R.E.A.L.® are 7th graders enrolled in an all-girls independent school in the southeast. On one level, that accounts for the politeness: here, manners come with the territory. However, I thought the extent of their agreeableness merited further reflection. When I am at the center of our classroom back-and-forth, the girls argue all the time – chiefly that they are right and that I am wrong, of course, but they always fight their corners. Why had that changed when I was removed from the equation? After reading their I.R.T. notes and reflection work, I could see that the underlying issue revolves around social capital, popularity, and the wider 7th grade dynamic at play in their lives. 

As adolescents, our girls’ brains are highly attuned to the social ranks of those around them; they know which girls have social capital, and which do not. In the untested world of the R.E.A.L.® discussion, our girls hedged their bets and sought at every instance to preserve the status quo. Nobody stuck her neck out, but nobody lost face either. Matters remained neutral. Once I understood this, we talked about it, so they could recognize what was happening and move beyond it in our next R.E.A.L.® discussion. After all, it is hardly a discussion if everyone is just singing the same song together. 

This, I think, is one of the real strengths of the R.E.A.L.® system: the way in which it affords students the opportunity to have a shared experience that can then serve as the catalyst to address deeper questions about the four skills of Relating, Excerpting, Asking, and Listening. Were my students all REALLY listening if they were consistently agreeing with one another? Did they prioritize relating because they wanted everyone to feel good about their contributions…or because they actually agreed? Some interesting discussions followed, and we moved on. 

This, I think, is one of the real strengths of the R.E.A.L.® system: the way in which it affords students the opportunity to have a shared experience that can then serve as the catalyst to address deeper questions.

Of course, in the second round of R.E.A.L.® discussions, students found another way to subvert my expectations. Suddenly, they were leaning into the “Ask” skill – some out of genuine curiosity, others to highlight deficiencies in others’ preparation work. In the race to be the best at R.E.A.L.®, some attempted to assert their social status at others’ expense, asking them for details that they knew they did not have prepared.

Girls will be girls; we are reminded by Lisa Damour in her NYT bestseller Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (a must-read for anyone looking to decode girls at this age) that:

“Girls are rarely able to maintain social power indefinitely through meanness. By tenth grade, most girls feel secure enough in their friendship groups to ignore or isolate girls who continue to be nasty. Seventh graders, though, having just withdrawn from their home tribe, are particularly vulnerable. They are often willing to be mean – or put up with peers who are mean – in order to secure a new tribe”

– Damour, 2017 edn., p. 52

Pandora’s box was opened, and everyone heard about it. Once the formal discussion was over, the I.R.T. notes taken, and reflective work done, we again talked it out. The girls quickly came to the realization that the aggressive question had not, in fact, hurt anyone’s feelings. They also learned  that saying, “You know, that didn’t come up in my prep” is a perfectly acceptable answer, so long as it does not become habitual. That day’s shout outs praised both the questioner and her respondent almost equally.  

Once our first discussion cycle ended, I could see immediately from the R.E.A.L.® Dashboard that these after-action conversations with the girls make the biggest impact. I saw comments like this over and over: “You learn how to disagree with others without starting a fight or a heated argument, and you learn how to voice your opinion when it may be hard to sometimes.” My girls took that lesson to heart because it was staked in their lived experience rather than in the realm of the conceptual. In our second cycle, the polite faces were still there, but the girls felt more empowered to call peers out on assertions without evidence when necessary and started to more directly challenge them on the evidence that they had excerpted. But only after thanking them. It is still the South. 


Dr Ralph Covino teaches Latin, History, and Geography at the Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, TN. He has been recognized by the University of Tennessee Alumni Association, Tennessee Geographic Alliance, and National Geographic as an outstanding educator. A previous teacher fellow of the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa and the American Geographical Society, he is currently a Fellow of the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools’ Global Action Research Collaborative. 

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