Politics in the Classroom: 5 Goals
Updated: Jan 8
This week, I’ll start a project I call “The Love + Stories Project” and the first part is to jump into all things politics. We just finished studying Hamlet, so it’s good timing. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet to express a lot of different ideas, but one of his main objectives was to get the audience to think and talk about the behavior of people in power, a somewhat dangerous activity in a monarchy where committing treason could get you killed.
Thankfully, we live in different times. But even now, an open and honest conversation about politics can quickly turn ugly. Sometimes the conversation doesn’t happen at all because silence is always easier. This happens for a lot of different reasons. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or offend someone. We don’t want to be wrong or not know the whole truth. We want to avoid stress or getting upset because someone disagrees with us or insults us. We might think it’s all a lost cause, that few people actually change their mind in the end. We might know that we ourselves might never think about politics differently, so what’s the point? Maybe we’re happy with the way things are, or don’t know enough about politics to want to engage. Maybe we’ve been voting for so long and we know that nothing will really change, no matter who we vote for. Maybe we watch protests on the news and think, that looks dangerous.
The list goes on. But what about the great potential of this country, the abstract limitlessness: the creativity, the innovation, the wealth, the freedom, the open-mindedness, the friendliness, the hospitality, the feeling that we can solve any problem? Our government sometimes feels like a big, clunky dinosaur robot that malfunctions every time you input a command. I remember seeing a clown at the Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia holding a sign that read: “Clowns in parades, not in Washington.”
It’s hard to avoid thinking about politics when we teach, or just in general. How can we take ourselves out of the conversation and be human beings with opinions at the same time? Where do we draw our moral lines that cannot be crossed in conversation? We must find the best way to allow a student to think for themselves and avoid indoctrinating them with our beliefs. We need to be able to present two opposing points of view in an unbiased manner so that students can make a choice. We need to convince students that it’s okay to have convictions, but to keep digging and keep learning. That developing opinions is an ongoing and never-ending process, not a thesis statement set in stone. That humility and kindness is the key to progress. And finally, that love should be the foundation of all our conversations.
Here are the goals and principles at the heart of any conversation about politics in my class:
1. Have a bipartisan and democratic approach
I try to get students to not only be respectful and tolerant, but also willing to consider multiple solutions and answers, not just one.
2. Celebrate independent thinking and problem solving
Whenever students disagree, I bring the conversation back to identifying and solving the problem or turn to history for a deeper look at the way people tried to solve the problem in the past.
3. Always fall back on the text and facts
To stay out of the conversation, I always come back to the text and reread an excerpt or quote. I present information to my students and help them make sense of it, but the text contains the facts and the argument. We’re there to ask good questions and to get students to think critically. We’re also there to help students determine what is a fact and what isn’t. Every hour episode of the podcast Science Vs. usually contains around one hundred citations. That’s good teaching.
4. Focus on choice, inquiry, and the future
It’s important for teachers, the administration, and the board of education to curate curriculum, but it’s also important to allow students to research and discover articles, videos, paintings, songs, books, poems, photographs, memes, biographies, and anything else that opens up their education. A quality education contains a balance of the past, the present, and the future.
5. Explore topics related to race and culture
No conversation about politics would be complete without a conversation about race and culture. Most students identify as individuals belonging to a specific race or culture. In my project, students can read about language, religion, places, the criminal justice system, taxes, the environment, healthcare, history, the economy, education, and all things pop or consumer culture including television, movies, and music.
Language and how we interpret it can unite us or divide us. In a country where people treat political parties like sports teams, we must be comfortable leading difficult conversations. Classrooms are the start of the democracy we want.
* update 1/7/21
I just finished up an amazing conversation with my seniors about the news of the day. It reminded me of the conversations I had with my students when I taught Media Studies, a course that I think should be required in high school. I listened to them speak about their disappointment, fear, and shock, but I also heard them talk about the future and the world that they'd like to live in. What we do as English teachers is SO important. We teach the value of supporting an argument with real evidence. We teach the value of understanding the point of view and opinion of another person. The value of being able to recognize and interpret figurative language and its ability to unite or divide. Today I'm sad and a little scared, but hopeful that we'll figure this all out.
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