The Magic in Democratic Dialogues by Sherry K. Watt and Coreen Frank

Magic describes “the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature” (magic, n.d.). Magic happened during one memorable semester in our Leadership and Public Service classroom. Leadership and Public Service is a course for undergraduate students with an interest in developing leadership skills for public service roles. Students, in partnership with the instructors, were invited to explore tough issues through democratic dialogue. What was unique about this particular semester is that every single day of class (yes, everyday) the personal sharing as well as openness within classroom discussions prompted each of us to do deeper reflection on our own lives, positions, and roles. In this classroom environment, we all felt safe to live our truths and deeply listen to how others negotiate a world that is not inviting to difference. There were exceptional gifts of mind, body and spirit shared during this semester.

The foundation of this course is built on students engaging passionately in discussions about what it means to be a leader in a diverse society, while at the same time, practicing the art of leadership through their mentor relationship with middle or high school aged youth. Since beginning the course, we have witnessed emotional and intellectual growth in many of the students who have journeyed with us. Sherry has taught courses on controversial topics for almost 20 years. Her research focuses on how participants react to and engage in difficult dialogues around social oppression issues. During the past 14 years, Coreen has supported and developed multiple school-based programs that work to expand staff leadership capacity through the education of youth around issues of social and emotional development. Yet, we were captivated by the depth of dialogue and relationship building that occurred during this memorable semester. It felt different…magical.

While it felt magical and fortuitous, we had started intentional planning for the course during a summer teaching institute we attended together. The Crossroads Institute brought together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and instructors in the aftermath of the 2008 floods in Iowa. The institute curriculum taught us about the principles and practice of facilitating democratic dialogues as we reframed consciousness around community involvement in the wake of tragedy. Democratic dialogues are “structured discussions to handle tough issues” (Crocco, 2008, p. 2). Democratic dialogue at its best encourages student action on social, communal and personal issues (Crocco, 2008). We added what we learned from the Crossroads Institute to our Leadership and Public Service class. Specifically, we strengthened our approach to facilitating discussion by applying the concepts of democratic dialogue. We also expanded the uses of contemplative practices. Contemplative practices included uses of poetry, silent reflection, and other introspective methods to explore meaning on a personal and community level (Parker & Zajonc, 2010).

As teachers, we are neither magicians nor enchantresses who can knowingly put students under our spell. Though there are times in the classroom when students are invited (or faculty invite students) through the door to engage in deeper reflection through democratic dialogue and the students authentically accept the invitation. In our Leadership and Public Service class, we made room for democratic dialogues that invited a wide range of opinions. This type of dialogue takes place within a network of relationships between: the two of us as instructors; student and instructors; student and student; and even student to mentee.

We have both experienced times in our personal and professional lives when attempts at democratic dialogue have flourished or missed the mark. Likewise, there is a difference between a classroom dynamic that is just educationally substantive and one that transcends the educational experience to feel magical. The transcendence to a magical classroom experience from year to year is somewhat serendipitous. However, in this essay, we explore what may have boosted this memorable semester from not only being educationally substantive, but also a magical experience for both students and instructors. We also share what “ingredients” went into the “magic potion” this particular time to create a successful learning environment for the inherently controversial topics linked to diversity and leadership.

Our Magic Potion

As the above definition describes, our magic potion included presumable human control, incantation, and forces of nature.

Presumable human control: Establishing early, personalized ground rules for how we aimed to interact during this year long learning experience was a key ingredient. These ground rules, generated out of a discussion in the first class, set the stage for trust-building and honest relationships to develop. For example, “Do not take it personally; be in service of learning” set a high bar that put in focus our collective commitment to prioritize learning even when dialogue was difficult.

As we leaned into the ground rules we set, it was clear that students trusted us to lead them anywhere and they trusted each other to share their newborn reflections.

Incantation: Including a mix of scholarly readings, contemplative practices such as poetry and reflective questions that invited students to explore their identity and to reexamine their values, beliefs, and upbringing was a key element to our brew (Parker, 2007, Parker & Zajonc, 2010). “What religious value did you accept as a child that you now question as an adult?” is an example of a thoughtful yet pointed reflective question that stretched the mind and engaged the soul.

Forces of nature: Valuing difference created a priceless space to openly explore privileged and marginalized identities with integrity and in safety. This magical group differed in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, social and religious beliefs, economic backgrounds, and nationality. The group value was to honor the individual experience of each student in the space. It was not just that differences were present, but the way the students engaged this unintended ingredient that seasoned our discussions and deepened the depth of our exploration.

When the magic happens, nine out of ten students expressed in their final reflective paper an understanding that aligned with what we intended for them to absorb from the class.

We offer two examples of such reflections:

Knowing who I am and getting to know others is not enough if I am not going to be open to who individuals are as individual people. I know it’s not possible to be in agreement on everything with every single person. And, I know I might disagree greatly with a single person. But, I also know it’s much easier to be closed-off to those differences; not allowing them to change me or be changed by me.

I’ve also seen how much of an impact a group of students can have on one another, given a positive environment. It was very enjoyable to be part of the class and engage in all the discussions. I learned more about myself, and others, in the class discussions than I did during any other part of the class.

If magic in teaching happens only once a year or once every 10 years, it is still worth intentionally creating the space for engaging in authentic dialogue and valuing difference. Why? Because when magic does happen, it heals the wounds from all of the times we mixed our potion and some ingredient was not quite right. From times when we faced questions about credibility and intentions, to students disengaging from the process through covert and overt forms of resistance. So, we will keep inviting the dialogue, mixing the potion, intentionally using democratic dialogue and contemplative practices, and hoping for magic even if it does not happen every time we teach.


Crocco, M. S. (2008). Introduction. In M. S. Crocco (Ed.), Teaching the levees: A curriculum for democratic dialogue and civic engagement (pp. 1-5). New York: Teachers College Press.

magic. (n.d.). unabridged. Retrieved from

Parker, P.J. (2007). The Courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Parker, P.J. & Zajonc, A. (2010). The heart of higher education A call to renewal. Transforming the academy through collegial conversations. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Author Bios

Dr. Sherry K. Watt is an Associate Professor of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa. She is an author and the editor of the forthcoming book, Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations. Her research on privileged identity exploration expands the understanding of the various ways in which people react to difficult dialogue related to social issues. She is a facilitator and has almost 20 years of experience in designing and leading educational experiences that involve strategies to engage participants in dialogue that is meaningful, passionate, and self-awakening.

Coreen Frank received her Master’s in Education in School Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1998 and has worked for the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) since 2001. As the Coordinator of Mental Health Services, she is accountable for the supervision of the Student & Family Advocate staff at all 25 schools, as well as, the development of mental health programming in the district. She has also served as an Adjunct Lecturer for the Department of Educational Policy & Leadership Studies in the College of Education at the University of Iowa since 2009.

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of ACPA or the Commission for Social Justice Educators. 

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