Politics in the Classroom
By Dan Devitt
Critical Race Theory. The 2020 presidential election. The events at the Capitol on January 6. LGBTQ+ rights. Impeachment. Covid vaccination requirements. Abortion.
As the list of controversies outside the classroom grows, the reality for government teachers inside the classroom remains the same: students are watching your every move to see where you stand and gain guidance for answers or clarity to these complex issues. Sometimes, this means questions coming your way you’d rather avoid, like:
“Well, what do you really think”? “You must have an opinion; what is it?” “Who did you vote for?”
Like other government instructors, I have heard (and seen via email) these types of questions before. As engaged and empathetic teachers, we would like to share our honest feelings and have a heartfelt conversation with our kids about the subject they care about.
Yet the last decade or so of political partisanship and dysfunction, specifically since 2016, has increased the stakes for classroom teachers trying to navigate the treacherous waters of controversial issues that naturally arise in an AP Government class.
As an AP Government consultant for the College Board, I teach teachers how to prepare their students for the national exam. One question I pose to them is whether or not they should share their politics in the classroom. Before the Age of Trump, this was a nice midweek break in these typically week-long sessions where we hashed out the nuts and bolts of curriculum design and exam preparation. Not anymore. Since 2016, these discussions have become increasingly tense and complicated. Comments veered from those who claim that active resistance to Trump and his policies was/is a moral imperative in order to protect some of their undocumented students, to others who claimed they avoided weighing in on controversial issues altogether out of fear they would get sanctioned, or worse fired. More teachers than ever have begun to simply opt out of the conversation.
What to do? Although there is a rational case to be made for newly credentialed teachers with little union protection or private school teachers with no tenure that they should avoid addressing these political flashpoints, a more constructive approach is to figure out how to maneuver students through these classroom discussions, rather than avoid them.
According to recent Hess and McAvoy, authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, the goal of any government teacher should be to help teach students the art of deliberation and listening, with the idea that this kind of engagement is healthy for our democracy. If we want our students to be active citizens who vote, attend city council meetings and maybe run for office one day, what better way to prepare them for the world of politics than to teach them the skill of informed discourse and listening?
Easier said than done? Perhaps. While most teachers agree with Larry Ferlazzo’s blunt statement, “I’m not here to teach my students what to think; I’m here to teach my students how to think,” actually succeeding in that pedagogical goal is not as easy as we think. Here are some tried and true rules that I have picked up along the way as an AP teacher that might help us better manage difficult conversations and teach our students the art of informed discourse.
Structure the Conversation- While spontaneous conversations are a necessary component of any Humanities class, beginning a class or a discussion with the question “What do you think…?” can open up a can of worms or unnecessarily create a lot of anxiety for those who are not prepared or ready for a controversial topic that may trigger personal emotions. Teachers should consider some thoughtful rules of the road before starting what could be a risky conversation. Inspired by an exercise called “Courageous Conversation Compass,” I am much more purposeful in my preparation for controversial topics. I send to my students a detailed agenda of our class discussion that includes essential questions from readings assigned the night before. I am also more flexible and aware of students giving me nonverbal clues if they need to pause the conversation or take a break to respond to what they just heard. Finally, I provide a space at the end of class for students to reflect (in writing) on their experience.
Fact Check the Research – As jaded as students are in the age of the internet, it always amazes me how naïve most students (and adults) can be when confronted with a sea of misinformation online. (Here’s some resources from Stanford to combat that). The old teacher defense of “if they don’t have their arguments based on facts, I don’t allow it” is now obsolete as students in your classroom bring their own facts from social media and ideological websites to back up stances on issues that may cross the school’s (or your) red lines of appropriate discourse. In order to deal with this, it is more important than ever to walk students through a variety of legitimate research or news sites, from different ideological strands to allow students to be exposed to a variety of sources.
Connect it to your Curriculum – When in doubt, ask yourself: “What is the point of this discussion or debate?” Is it part of the District or AP curriculum? Or at least related? Are the students learning an important pedagogical skill? This does not mean every discussion needs to tie back to state or AP mandated guidelines, but reminding students of how the controversial topic ties back to the textbook or curriculum can be helpful in defusing whatever personal emotions might erupt around the topic while also teaching important vocabulary terms or concepts. In other words, reminding the class of why they are engaging in the Social Sciences in the first place.
There is no question that the combination of school closures due to the pandemic and the social unrest and activism since May of 2020 has caused me to reevaluate my role as an AP Government teacher. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than to spar with my students intellectually and engage them with the issues and policies that surround us. Yet as our politics have become more emotionally charged and complex, my conversations with students who are at times living with the consequences of some of the policies discussed in class reminds me that having thoughtful conversations must be a holistic endeavor that considers “the whole child”-paying attention to their emotional and social wellbeing as well as teaching them skills or content. Not an easy task. But definitely worth it.
Dan Devitt teaches at Saint Ignatius College Preparatory School in San Francisco, California. He is an avid Pickleball Player and long-suffering Cubs fan.
Photo/Image atop page courtesy of Tulane Public Relations