By Kevin Comtois
Let’s face it, politics have become emotional. Some of us love a good political debate and are comfortable voicing dissenting views, while others worry about raising the ire of someone they respect and paying a price for it. Despite the emotional burden, classrooms are a logical space for young people to forge history with politics and social justice. It is also the perfect setting for establishing how to approach conversations that have the potential to be contentious. As adults and teachers, it becomes our responsibility to model how to engage in thoughtful and respectful debate. The following ten tips are meant to guide teachers as they take on the minefield of politics in the classroom.
- Diversify sources of information. We must teach students that all Americans have an obligation to diversify their sources of information in order to be fully informed about events and issues facing the country. When we look at one news source (either liberal or conservative) we are only looking at one viewpoint. In fact some news sources won’t even publish a story if it goes against the particular “narrative” of their ideology. To have a full understanding of all issues, we must look at different sources, especially sources that we may personally disagree with.i
- Use humor in the classroom. Humor should be one of the most important parts of any teacher’s process of connecting with students. The issues that we currently face, including a nuclearized Iran, an aggressive North Korea, 20 trillion in national debt and a politically polarized political system requires that we, at times, take a light hearted approach towards these issues. For teenagers who have not experienced all that life has to offer, approaching these issues without humor can create an atmosphere of fear, apprehension and anxiety. By using humor, the mood of the room is lighter, the students do not fear the end of their “world”, and learning can be accomplished.ii
- Don’t take a side. This is probably the most important part of teaching politics. Young people are very susceptible to influence. They are like little human sponges. We as teachers have more influence over their thinking than we probably realize. Just like children learn behavior from watching siblings, parents and friends; children learn how to interact politically from listening to their teachers and people in power. If we show students objectivity in the classroom, we may be helping to promote the civil discourse that our nation so desperately needs in order to solve our most pressing problems.iii
- Present both sides of an argument. It doesn’t matter what your position is; it doesn’t matter what party you belong to or what ideology that you proscribe to; it is vital that teachers be fair and objective when teaching. It’s not easy to keep your own personal feeling out of the classroom, true, but it seems to be more and more prevalent to see articles or videos (filmed by their students) of teachers berating a student because he or she happens to have an alternative viewpoint. It is not our job to convince students that one perspective is correct; it is our job to present all viewpoints with an objective lens and allow the student to make up his/her own mind. By allowing our students to come to their own conclusions we are creating lifelong thinkers. As adults, we want them to look at all the ideas available, and make a logical, educated and thoughtful conclusion. iv
- Don’t allow students to argue against a person but an idea. Ad Hominem attacks against political opponents seemed to be all the rage in the last presidential election. One candidate called the other corrupt and then that candidate responded with a claim that he was a racist. You may believe one of these accusations or even both, but the fact remains that this type of discussion does not promote substantive debate and discussion. If someone called me corrupt why should I discuss issues seriously with that person? If another called me a racist, that is pretty much the end of the discussion. We must not allow this type of political discourse (engaged in by our partisan leaders) to filter into our own discussions. The only way we, as Americans (and citizens of the world), will be able to solve some of the greatest problems we face, will be through honest and open discussions. Calling each other names only shuts down debate. Ask a student: “If I call you a bad name, would you want to sit and talk to me about political issues, or would you rather talk to someone who is civil and treats you with respect?” I think we all know the answer.v
- Make everyone feel comfortable in the classroom. It’s difficult for young people to “be themselves” if they don’t feel comfortable. If someone believes that their opinion is not respected or their ideology will be denigrated it is unlikely that they will honestly express themselves. This begins the first day of school. Once a student enters the classroom they are hesitant because they don’t know the teacher nor do they know many of the students around them. Break the ice with an activity so people can express themselves regarding something simple. You could start with a question about summer vacation, or ask people to express an opinion about a popular movie. “What did you like about the movie? What did you not like about the movie?” For every response the teacher needs to respond positively. “I never thought about that before – excellent. That’s a really good observation; I’m going to have to watch that movie again.” Making each student feel comfortable with their own opinions about a movie or summer vacation will then lead to students expressing themselves about politics without fear of being judged by their opinions.vi
- There is no right or wrong answer. America is full of different ideas, ideologies and perspectives. Some ideas may be rejected by people, and different ideas may be rejected by others. But that doesn’t mean that either idea is incorrect. Yes, there are incorrect facts, but there is no incorrect interpretation of a fact. In politics there are facts and there are the interpretations of those facts. A glass that is half full is also half empty. Same fact, different interpretation. Once a student realizes that there can be a different way to look at the same fact, they come to realize that their own ideas, although different than others, are not wrong – only different.vii
- Many political issues are not new but continue the same debates that have taken place for years. Federalism, ethnic equality, gender equality, economics, nationalism, patriotism etc. Every time there is a controversial issue brought up by politicians or a member of the news media, find a way to connect that issue to a similar one in the past. When discussing the issue of immigration relate it to nativism in the late 19th century; when discussing ethnic equality, relate it to reconstruction of the 1870s or the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; when discussing political polarization, relate it to the 1850s and the dissolution of the Whig Party; when dealing with ad hominem political attacks, relate it to the death of Andrew Jackson’s wife during the election of 1828. History repeats itself. Once students realize that many issues in history have happened before they come to realize that the current crisis is not the end of the world and every emergency will come to a conclusion.viii
- Social media information is not always true. Unlike a newspaper, television outlet or major media outlet online (CNN, FOX news etc.), there is no confirmation of stories posted on social media. There is no guarantee that the information contained in that post will be correct. There are people, organizations and even countries that purposely post false and inflammatory information on the internet. Let your students know that it’s okay to receive information from social media, but they need to NOT believe it until confirmed (by more than one) other official news source that actually spends money and time to confirm or deny that a particular news story is actually accurate. Fake news is nothing new. It was used to push America into the Spanish American War in 1898 and brilliantly dramatized by Orson Wells who scared tens of thousands of Americans on October 30, 1938.ix
- Some subjects are best avoided in the classroom entirely. I realize that this is mostly unrealistic, but there are some issues that are best kept in the home or place of religious worship. If a contentious subject can be avoided, and it’s not necessary for the day’s lesson, then maybe it’s a good idea to avoid it. Sometimes it’s good to have a student ask his/her parents or religious leaders an important question regarding a social issue. Teachers don’t have all the answers. It’s okay for a teacher to say: “That’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer. Maybe you can ask your parents or your priest/minister/rabbi/imam.” We are not gods, but mere mortals trying to do the best we can to prepare young people for the contentious word around them.
These ten suggestions, followed here at the Academy of Notre Dame, are only a starting point for social studies (and other) teachers to make their classroom an environment where students can feel comfortable being honest with their opinions and express them without fear of reprisal. It’s important to acknowledge that five of the seven hallmarks outlined by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, sponsors of the Academy, fall directly within the ten suggestions that I have made: “We honor the dignity and sacredness of each person, educate for justice and peace in the world, commit ourselves to community service, embrace the gift of diversity (and) create community among those with whom we work and with those we serve.” The Academy of Notre Dame takes pride in these hallmarks and continuously strives to make them something students will take with them for the rest of their lives.
For future reference on the above mentioned topics: