“We need more political discussions, not fewer.” But how?
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of yelling going on. Social media. Cable news. Local coffee shops. People disagreeing, not getting along, refusing to compromise their “values.”
And school classrooms can seem like a safe space where we can protect our students from all of that ugliness. Education Week survey data gathered back in February suggested that many teachers find it difficult to talk about race, politics, and other controversial topics. Almost 30 percent expressly avoid it completely. Part of the problem is that many of us – 44 percent – don’t feel prepared to lead conversations that might get emotional.
So . . . two questions here.
Should we even have these sorts of conversations? And if we do, what can it look like and what tools can we use?
Answer to the first question:
Our country (and world) needs as many open-minded people as possible who are able to work with others, be able see divergent and different viewpoints, and can develop solutions to urgent problems. And what better place for people to learn how to do this? Who else is better at teaching them than us?
Paula McAvoy, author of The Political Classroom and director of the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says “we need more school-based political discussions in a time of national divisiveness, not fewer.”
the main challenge teachers face is finding resources that are current, present multiple and competing points of view, and are the right reading level.
One thing that came out of our research is that students are fascinated by the fact that their peers have different opinions. It opens them up to the idea that the world is complex, that people don’t all think like me, and I still like these people.
And if you haven’t seen this already in your room, kids want to talk about these issues. Generation Z – your kids – want to solve problems. They want to make the world a better place. They’re just not always sure how to do that.
So the simple answer to the first question – yes. We need to find ways to encourage and support controversial and uncomfortable conversations. Because it makes our kids better prepared for the real world.
If you accept the idea that we should be doing this, it would still be nice to have some support and tools. What does it look like? What are others doing that works? Are there tools I can use?
A few basic suggestions:
- Keep the learning engaging & fun
- Use technology
- Keep the peace
One teacher used the phrase “harness the passion without bogging down in partisan muck.”
Need a bit more specifics?
Start with Yes, Race and Politics Belong in the Classroom, a great article published a few weeks ago by EdWeek. It’s a nice resource that supports the idea of doing this sort of thing in the classroom – useful if principals or parents come to you suggesting that this is something you shouldn’t be doing.
Then head over to this Google document that list both Dos and Don’ts of controversial topic conversations. You’ll also find a handy list of articles and resources for facilitating difficult discussions.
Use iCivics. This is a no-brainer. Sandra Day O’Conner’s awesome civics / government site has interactive simulations, teaching tools, and lessons. And we know that quality civic engagement instruction must integrate the use of civic simulations. Use it for free but if create an account, you get access to more stuff. So . . . uh, you should sign up for more stuff.
The Civic Action Project is a project-based option from the Constitutional Rights Foundation. You’ll find lessons on how to help students research issues they care about and connect those concerns with public policy.
“Think of it as a culmination of students’ social studies education, a chance for them to apply what they have learned to the real world and impact an issue that matters to them.”
Kids can also find a variety of civic involvement toolkits and social media connections where they can post videos and get feedback from other CAP participants.
Harvard’s Graduate School of Education recently launched One and All designed to highlight strategies of higher ed folks and classroom teachers – via video, text, and podcast – for encouraging student empathy and respect. You’ll also find strategies for guiding discussions of controversial issues. The site asks that teachers share their own ideas via Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.
You can also find resources on a site called ISideWith.com. Support politics and government discussions by having students take the online quiz that analyzes their answers to questions on topics as far-ranging as legalizing marijuana to judicial responses to arrested terror suspects. This gives students the chance to really get a sense of their actual beliefs rather than what they think are their beliefs. Knowing more about self is always a solid place to start a conversation.
You might also find useful stuff at ProCon.org, a collection of the arguments for and against a wide variety of issues. This can serve as a starting point for conversations about different topics. Another handy tool for gathering information is Newsela, a site I’ve talked about before that organizes primary sources and current event articles from publications such as the Washington Post, Scientific American and the Associated Press. The cool thing is that you can adjust the reading level of the texts – ensuring that all of your kids can access information.
Another civics / government simulation can be found at Civic Mirror. “Unlike most social studies programs that ask students to learn about things, The Civic Mirror allows students to experiment with the course content. It provides students with a voice and enlivens the curriculum by turning them into citizens of their own country, with their own families, government, court, economy, and environment.”
I haven’t used what’s@stake with kids but it also looks like a solid sim that supports different perspectives. “At times, the barriers between overcoming community divides and biases to solve local problems can feel impenetrable. @Stake was created to help facilitate productive and fair conversations in classrooms, conferences, strategic board meetings, and public events. By playing @Stake, participants learn that productive conversations thrive off of authentic listening and multiple perspectives.” And I like that you can use the structure for a wide range of issues.
Now more than ever, we need citizens able to passionately debate the issues that impact their communities and country. But to participate in the debate calmly and with the ability to see different perspectives – willing to do what’s best, not just what’s best for themselves.
Using these tools and resources can help train your students to become those sorts of citizens.