The Kitchen Table Question
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The Kitchen Table Question

This exercise can help participants make an important discovery: that "their" key issues are not the only ones worth caring about, and that other people may frame a shared issue in a way very different from their own.

Time to complete:

40 minutes 

What principles, ground rules, or concepts are at play here?

  1. Build on what others say
  2. Begin with story, not position
  3. Ask clarifying questions.
  4. There are multiple sides to any issue
  5. Disagreement is fine; it's fruitful.  Don't try to win it or paper it over. Explore it.

How to do the exercise

Start by identifying the context for the exercise.   This process can work for national, state, local or hyperlocal issues.  It works well during a high-profile election, but can be used at any time for an ongoing situation e.g.  a crime problem in a community, or the occasion of a new leader taking over e.g., a new schools superintendent.

The context determines which leader or leaders are put at the center of the imaginary situation described in the prompt.

Here's the format for the prompt:

Imagine that you're sitting in your home tonight, in the kitchen or at the dining-room table, and POOF!, X (NAME OR NAMES, WITH THEIR TITLE OR CANDIDACY) suddenly materializes before you.  He, she, they address(es) you by name and says, "Sorry to drop in like this but I need your advice.  I want to do a good job for you, so please tell me this: What's the one, most important thing you need me to do for you, your family, your friends or your community in the coming year?  Please understand, I'm visiting hundreds of people like this, so I don't have a lot of time.  So, for real, in 30 seconds or less, give it to me clear and straight: What's the one biggest thing I need to do, and why."

Take a minute or two now to decide what you want to tell X, remembering you only have 30 seconds.

While they're thinking, make sure you've set up a spot where you can keep a visible list of the issues/ideas about to be voiced.

After you give students a minute or two to think, tell the students you're going to ask them to share the issues they came up with.  Ask for a volunteer to go first.  Explain that if your top issue gets voiced by someone who went before you, you have a choice: You can "and-one" that issue, while offering a further thought or detail about it. Or you can propose your second-choice issue.  If a student is really stumped, ask them to think of another issue and raise their hand when they're ready to share it.

If a student proposes an issue clearly, with a reason, that's great. Thank and praise, then put the issue on the list. If a student is struggling a bit, ask clarifying questions, e.g.:

  • What I think I'm hearing you say is X. Is that right?
  • Could you share a little about why this issue matters so much to you?
  • If you had to sum up what you're saying in two or three words, what would they be?

Leave some room on the list beneath each issue listed.  Put check marks or dots by an issue to show how many people endorsed it.  Record some of the "and-one" comments about how others see the issue or why it's important.  It's fine and can be fruitful if a second voice agrees that an issue is important but wants to see something very different done about it.

Keep going until every student has a chance to add something to the list.  Once that's done, ask: "Is there anyone who has another issue or idea they think it's really important to add to this list?  We've got room for a couple more."

Conclude with some form of discussion and evaluation of the list of issues. You have choices on how to do this, depending on what the context is and what next steps are planned.

A good opener for the discussion piece is:

 "OK, good job, everybody.  Now, look over our list.  What do you notice?  Anything surprise you?  Anything please you? Anything displease you?"

After that discussion, if there's time, it can be fun and fruitful to do some balloting to choose the top three to five issues that surfaced in the exercise. 

Colored-dot voting is a good way to do this, if you're able to write the issues ist on a large sheet (or several sheets) of paper posted in an accessible place.  (Note to Justin/Sam/Aleina: Not sure what options classroom techh (at least in well off schools) might offer here.)

Give each student the same number of dots. Tell them they can vote any way they want. They can put all their dots on one issue they really care about or spread their dots around on multiple issues.  Give them five minutes to take turns placing their dots.

Here's a possible twist that can prove interesting: Give each student one or two red dots, with the instruction that these dots represent negative feelings about an issue.  Students should only place a red dot if they feel strongly that they don't want that issue or idea to survive the cut.   (This sometimes produces the interesting result that an item that's one of the top vote-getters also receives the most red dots; that reveals an issue about which there is passionate disagreement. That's something worth noting and discussing with the class.)

Generally, items with the most dots should win the balloting.   Red dots could be used to break ties, with the item with fewer dots getting the advantage. But, again, if a highly popular item also gets red dots, that's worth a discussion. It may affect how you frame a prompt or report on our issue:  e.g. Our class cares greatly about X, though some of us what to see you do Y about it, while others feel as strongly that you should do Z.

Follow-up steps

If your goal is to identify Can We Talk? issues, but the class hasn't yet done a CWT?, you could share the list with us so we could try to craft some prompts. If the students are CWT? vets, you could have them try individually or in small groups to craft prompts on a couple of the top issues.

If the context is an election, you could have the class draft and send a letter with the list of issues, or with questions related to the issues, to the various candidates.

If the context is a local issue or the agenda of a new leader, the class can draft a letter to be sent either to that leader, or as a letter or blog post to a local news or community website.

PA State Standards

  • 5.2.C.C. - Evaluate political leadership and public service in a republican form of government
  • 5.3.C.D. - Evaluate the roles of political parties, interest groups, and mass media in politics and public policy.
  • CC.1.2.11–12.G - Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • 5.3.C.G. - Analyze the influence of interest groups in the political process.