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November 2, 2018

How Do I Discuss Politics in the Classroom?

Engaging Students in a Respectful Manner

As we near the 2018 midterm elections, it’s hard not to feel that the United States is intensely divided on political topics across the spectrum, and unfortunately, those divisions can play out in our classrooms. So the question many teachers may be asking themselves is: do I allow a space for my students to discuss the elections, or politics in general, in class?

Discussing politics with students, or any topic that may be controversial, requires a careful approach. As teachers we want to encourage exciting and challenging conversations, but not push our own beliefs on students. Above all, we want to keep our classrooms a safe place for students, as well as build and keep their trust and respect.

For these reasons, many teachers choose to avoid political discussions altogether. They may fear alienating students, causing emotional distress, intensifying divisions, or even jeopardizing their careers. Some schools have even banned specific topics from classroom discussions to avoid controversy. It is true that without preparation, patience, and boundaries, any topic with personal or emotional overtones can cause potential problems.

The potential benefits of encouraging conversations about political issues, however, are far-reaching and long-lasting. The art of being able to clearly and respectfully express your own views and listen and understand someone else’s is essential in life. Maybe even greater is the ability to consider and comprehend new ideas that may help us develop deeper understanding.  I think we can all agree our country could benefit from these lessons today. Sometimes, when I look around, I wonder where else will young people learn these important skills if we don’t foster them in our schools? In classrooms, caring adults can support students, foster respect, offer encouragement, and intervene to rebuild community should tensions arise. Even if we choose to— or are required to — avoid the most controversial issues, we should work to engage our students as much as possible in order to send them off into the world as informed citizens. In a country where voter turnout for young adults is barely 50% (and total voter turnout hovers around 60%) exploring a broad range of national or local issues could be the first step in ensuring a more politically-informed generation. I can’t imagine anything more inspiring or motivating than seeing my students heading off to “be the change” they wish to see!

What’s Next?

Whether or not you’re planning to discuss the elections, these tips can help you lead respectful classroom activities and student engagement.

1. Foster strong discussion and listening skills

This should begin early in the year. Break the ice with discussions where students can express themselves regarding something simple. You could start with a question about their favorite dessert or ask them to express an opinion about a popular movie. Model good behaviors and establish discussion norms. These norms should include actions and behaviors that are in-bounds, such as using facts and examples, affirming clear arguments, and out-of-bounds, such as interrupting others or disrespectful comments. Your class may choose to post these in the room for reference.  Gradually helping students feel comfortable with their own opinions about a wide range of topics will pave the way for more respectful, open discussions as the year progresses. You’ll know if your students can or cannot handle large-group discussions about deeper issues as they develop their skills.

2. Teach students it’s okay to make claims against an idea, but not a person

Ad hominem attacks against political opponents seem to be all the rage. While personal insults or attacks may persuade some opponents, the fact remains that this type of discussion does not promote understanding or compromise. Students should never be allowed to make personal claims against another person.  While I didn’t teach my students all the logical fallacies, I did teach them this one, and they would playfully call each other out — “Hey, no ‘ad hominem’ in here, Ms. K said!” — if they heard a fellow classmate attempt this type of argument which helped keep the discussions civil.

3. Discuss and share facts, reflect on opinions individually

If you’re not ready to open your class to political discussions, still consider having students research these issues, even those where students may be apt to “take a side.” Focus on quality resources and respectful cooperative work. At the end, give students the opportunity to reflect on their personal opinions through art or writing. Teach them how to present their ideas effectively to an audience: how can they convey their feelings respectfully or persuasively? This process helps them understand the importance of audience without some of the ‘risks’ of large-group discussion. Gradually you may start to work towards small and then larger group conversations.

4. Even if you don’t want to discuss “politics” do get out the vote!

In the 2016 election, only 43% of citizens ages 18 to 24 voted. Ugh! Anything we can do as teachers to help students understand our democracy and the importance of voting will undoubtedly give young people more voice in this country. There are so many great online resources available to help you build understanding and interest for your students. Here are a few we found in our quick search:

  • Democracy Class: A nonpartisan curriculum that educates high school students about the importance and history of voting
  • Wasted Ballots?”: A lesson from The New York Times exploring why more young people don’t vote, and what students can do about it
  • The 26th Amendment”: A lesson from Teaching Tolerance explores the importance of most recent constitutional expansion of voting rights: extending them to people between the ages of 18 and 21

We hope you’ll continue to think of ways to encourage students to get involved in their communities whether it’s through reflection, discussion, or action. Thank you for teaching our future leaders! 

For more teaching strategies, explore some of Learners Edge Instructional Strategies courses:


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