Questions & Authors: Politics in the classroom

September 10th, 2008

Political debates are everywhere these days—at home, at work, on television, and sometimes even in the checkout line at the grocery store or at the dentist’s office. It’s only natural that the elections and other political issues make their way into classrooms. In our latest installment of Questions & Authors, we asked Joan Brodsky Schur, author of Eyewitness to the Past, to share her ideas about how teachers can take advantage of children’s curiosity and the timeliness of the issues, while also respecting all students’ opinions and background:

As teachers we have tremendous potential to shape young minds, and that often gives parents and school boards reason to be wary of what goes on in the classroom. In an election year, teachers are eager to educate their students about the democratic process, but anxious not to arouse suspicions that they are using their classrooms to advance their own political views.  Open debate about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be particularly sensitive, especially when students have family members in the armed services.

How can teachers create classrooms that are open forums of rigorous debate about controversial issues, without incurring hurt feelings among classmates or angry reactions among parents? While this dilemma is not easy to solve, I prefer to see it as a positive opportunity. This election season opens up important “teachable moments” in which we can help students learn how to question assumptions, think critically, and form well-reasoned opinions based on facts. Here are some suggestions for making these things happen.

Introduce the Issues Yourself

Do not rely on students to bring up all sides to an argument related to the current election. If you start off the discussion with a question like, “What do you think America should do about XYZ” the discussion is likely to appear lopsided. Many of us live in communities that are predominantly “red” or “blue,” where we often share the same political persuasions as our neighbors. I worry about those students who hold minority viewpoints within the broader school community.  Whatever their opinions, they are often intimidated from expressing them because they expect to be pounced on by their classmates.  The discussion may feel personal rather than objective, and open discussion is stifled from start.

I recommend that you initiate discussion not by asking students what they think, but by presenting two sides to a selected issue right away, preferably using quotations from prominent politicians and commentators.  Should there be a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq?  Should we build a U.S.-Mexico border fence?  Should we have universal healthcare? Many websites provide useful information of this type; I especially recommend the Lehrer Report. Be sure to distribute the quotations in writing, or keep them posted in a visible place, because we often “hear” only what we want to hear.
This tactic immediately takes the discussion out of the realm of the personal.  It also demonstrates that those who have dedicated their lives to public service do not feel that it is “disloyal” to criticize their government; rather they see that as part of their role of being a good citizen.

Even-Handed Discussion Techniques

After the controlled set-up, I like to extend debate by asking students to develop and research more arguments for both sides of an issue.  In class I then ask for a supporting piece of evidence for Position A, then for Position B, and keep alternating. I don’t move on until I elicit something new for both sides. In this phase students understand that I am not asking them what they think about Position A, only what arguments can be made on its behalf. This keeps discussion even-handed, and some students feel more comfortable joining discussion because they do not need to disclose their own opinions.

Once students have mustered a variety of facts and arguments I move into the “What do you think?” phase.  Here again I alternate speakers pro and con.  “Someone made a good point in support of Position B, is there someone who wants to counter that argument in support of Position A?” I will ask. I keep lists on the board of those students who want to speak for one side or the other.  Discussion gets passionate, but the format keeps the class orderly.  If anyone speaks out of turn I erase his or her name and put it on the bottom of the speaker’s list.

By now students understand that we are debating ideas, not our friends or rivals.  I censor all comments that cross that line.  A student cannot call Tanya “dumb,” but she can say that Tanya made a dumb argument because she got her facts wrong.  Since this is not a formal debate, I also let students know that it’s acceptable to abandon an argument if you change your mind and can explain the reasons why.  In fact, when this happens you know that students are learning from the discussion and thinking hard.

Using the Past to Teach about the Present

For those of us who teach American history, this is an opportune moment to help students transfer the intense emotions they feel about today’s election to understand the dilemma’s facing Americans in elections past. The controversial issues we grapple with today are good reminders of what our ancestors went through at different times in history.  No one has a crystal ball to help them make hard choices.  Only after the fact does a historical event seem “inevitable.”

If teachers are worried about tackling certain questions head-on, there are ways to introduce them indirectly as you study the past.  Is it all right to criticize your country during wartime? Abraham Lincoln was a critic of the Mexican War of 1846-48.  The country showed great unity during World War II, yet landmark Supreme Court decisions supporting conscientious objectors were won during that time period.  How were our veterans treated after the Vietnam War, and how can we do better this time?  Presidents have faced re-election campaigns as they waged war.  Were Americans living during those time periods shy about criticizing Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War, or FDR’s leadership during World War II, and if not how did critics express themselves, and to what effect?

Presidential election years are a wonderful time to role-play elections past, like the elections of Thomas Jefferson VS John Adams in 1800, or Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay in 1832. Re-staging an election can electrify students, injecting partisanship and passion into their study of the candidates and the issues they represented, along with all the hoopla of slogans and cartoons.

With careful thought and preparation I believe this is an opportune moment to make the classroom a vital place in the lives of our students, the future electorate of our country.

So, how have you handled political issues in your classroom? Do you think it’s useful or important for students to have these debates and discussions in school? What recommendations would you have for teachers who are new to the profession and are faced with a controversial topic in their classroom?

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