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Divided times call for a different strategy.
The heart of one teacher-education class that I teach is politics. Not the politics of education, where we talk about the laws that govern public schools, but politics and education, where we talk about how big, thorny political issues affect students and families.
The college students whom I teach are asked to attend to the news and come prepared to engage with it, considering how things like immigration policy and new rules around gender-neutral bathrooms might play out in their future classrooms.
I was gratified, just this past fall, to receive comments from my students that included things like, “We talk about these things with more respect than politicians and adults do, and none of us agree with one another!” and “I had no idea we were allowed to talk about things like this, and my mind is spinning with what I thought I knew and ways I want to change.”
I have experienced firsthand the power of helping students engage with politics, and was disappointed — but not surprised — to learn about a proposed law in Arizona that would completely limit the ability of Arizona schoolteachers to talk about politics and other “controversial issues” in schools. The proposed bill gets at a fundamental question in American public schools: should schools be insulated from politics, or do they have a responsibility to prepare students to engage in a participatory democracy?
The answer to this question lies in how we define “political.” Political, as I define it, has to do with the role of being a participatory citizen in a democracy. This happens when we make democratic decisions about how we should live together. We see this sort of political teaching in classrooms when class rules are made together, as well as when students are asked to research and discuss current events.
It’s important to note that schools can be political without being partisan. Pushing partisan politics is a huge overstretch of power and, quite legitimately, does not belong in classrooms. Schools need to prepare students for political engagement in a nonpartisan way, even though the “real world” of politics is increasingly partisan and polarized. The big open question, of course, is where does teaching about politics end and partisan political teaching begin?
Appropriate political education might best be boiled down to four steps in a classroom:
1. Weigh fact-based evidence. Students need to research and consider the evidence, based on facts, about any given issue.
2. Consider multiple perspectives. When debating a political issue that might be considered a current event, students need to consider the evidence from multiple, often competing, perspectives.
3. Form and articulate opinions. Once facts are weighed and various perspectives are considered, it’s time for students to form their own opinions based on those facts and perspectives. Once opinions are formed, they can be shared.
4. Respond to people who disagree. An opinion is not a fact (this bears some repeating in our current political climate), and students must be able to engage in discourse with those who disagree. The intended outcome isn’t to “win,” but rather to carry out respectful political conversations.
There are differences among discussion, debate and deliberation in classroom spaces. Discussion is a genuinely shared inquiry, with the aim of listening, questioning and exploring open ideas. It happens perhaps most often during steps one and two as laid out above.
Debate is the respectful back-and-forth that occurs when there are multiple perspectives present in a given space. Deliberation is what happens so rarely in classrooms, though we see it when students work together to answer the question of “how do we live together?” It is a plan of action, the solution to a shared problem.
Teachers have always been worried about all three levels of discourse, but more so when it comes to deliberation. There’s a greater tendency to push partisan politics here, and they worry about backlash from administrators and parents. I argue that by following the steps articulated above, partisan rhetoric can remain outside the conversation.
Fundamentally, the proposed bill in Arizona is an affront to the sort of teaching that will help create a strong democracy. Regardless of political affiliation, teachers can — and should — educate students with the goal of creating strong and engaged citizens. The bill in Arizona should be a concern to all of us.
This story on Arizona teachers and free speech was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.