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As a student teacher in a New York City public high school in the West Bronx, I was forced by the election and the run-up to the inauguration to think deeply about the role teachers play in teaching critical democratic skills such as deliberation and dissent.
The New York City Education Department has policies that prohibit teachers from engaging in conversations with students about support for a particular candidate. After the election, my school administration did not provide guidelines about how teachers could or could not discuss the election results in their classroom. As a result, teachers in my building took different paths.
Some teachers discouraged discussion about the election. These teachers forged ahead with the lessons that they had planned before the results came in. Others told their students to trust the system and have faith in the country’s checks and balances. A few directly discussed the election results in class.
As I watched this unfold in my school, I realized that ignoring or accepting the political process without critically acknowledging its flaws denies the empowering possibilities of education for our nation’s youth, especially low-income students of color.
Teachers who promote the superiority and fairness of our democratic system deny our students a critical examination of a society that historically has marginalized the students in my classroom.
Students who live in a society riddled with systemic oppression and discrimination understand how inequality operates. An education that gives students space to voice dissent and their ideas about the political process empowers them to identify and act against systemic injustice.
Instead of suppressing conversations about the election, I engaged in a conversation that allowed students to share their reactions about the results. Not surprisingly, students were eager to discuss it. One 15-year old Hispanic female said, “Finally! A class we can talk about this in!” A 16-year old African-American female exclaimed, “I have so much to say!”
My students were passionate about a political, historical event. Most students expressed feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, and nervousness, which is understandable given the anti-immigrant, anti-poverty rhetoric that Trump and his supporters used during their campaign. My students, a mix of Hispanic and African American children from low-income backgrounds, needed space to discuss and reflect on what had happened in their country.
The democratic process
Teaching any classroom of students, regardless of demographics, to unquestionably trust their government perpetuates the status quo and suppresses social change. It is the antithesis of a democracy.
The election made politics real and compelling for them. After the election, I realized my role in harnessing that. This experience pushed me to reflect on the importance of making space for political dissent in the classroom.
Adolescents understand the complexities of our nation’s political processes. The conversations we had in my classroom validated both their emotions and their roles in the system. Instead of feeling ignored or frustrated my students felt empowered as agents of social change. As individuals with a voice in the political process.
It also gave them a chance to deliberate about what happened, how it affects their lives, and how to respond to one another, even their peers who might disagree. Deliberation and dissent are powerful. They are the hallmark of our democratic system. Suppression of emotional responses denies students the American democratic right to speak out and act.
Seeing educators during and after the election who were uncomfortable with the idea of political dissent in their classroom led me to ask: Why are teachers so worried about this kind of engagement? Teachers, particularly those in high-stakes public schools, tend to shy away from difficult topics and histories, but we should model and promote political dissension. In the classroom, teachers should facilitate these conversations in a way that promotes understanding and mediates disagreements, rather than avoiding the topics and making each side more deeply entrenched in opposition.
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This election made clear how severely divided our country is. My classroom was not particularly divided, but the results showed that my students had different opinions about what happened. These conversations teach students how to have them in the real world, to form their own opinions from evidence and the ideas of others, to defend these opinions and adjust them in consideration of opposing ideas.
In the days following the election I saw students wanting to hear their teachers’ perspectives in order to help them contextualize their own reactions. Teachers can and should model thoughtful political discussion that considers alternative viewpoints. As educators, we are failing to prepare students to participate in democracy as responsible voters and change makers if we do not facilitate and encourage political discourse in the classroom.
When engaging in these conversations, teachers must proceed cautiously. They need to be careful not to use their voice and place of power to drown out those who might disagree, who might dissent with them. Students must be free and have the power to voice opinions that conflict with their peers and their teachers. This requires a level of relational trust that can only be cultivate when teachers respect their students and vice versa. It is a fragile balance. One that must be developed together over time.
While it is difficult to do, we must. Not making space for political dissent in the classroom instead creates a void, which is quickly filled by miseducation, hindrance of students’ education and ability to develop informed opinions, and protection and perpetuation of the status quo—a system that does not work for all Americans.
President Obama reminded us in his farewell address that we need to be “jealous, anxious guardians of our democracy,” and in order to do so, we must use the classroom to enable students to be actors in the political system and in society. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to develop educated future voters and activists, while getting students engaged in the classroom. Bringing complicated, passionate political events into the classroom is a tool to reshape and revitalize education, and in turn, our society.
As a new president is sworn into office today, teachers have yet another opportunity to engage in conversations that promote discussion and dissent to cultivate the kind of citizens that our nation’s democracy demands.
Italia Krahling is a masters student in the Teaching of Social Studies program at Teachers College, Columbia University and a student teacher in a New York City public school.