Politics in the Classroom

Fall 2020

By Kent Lenci

As I write this piece in mid-September, the presidential election looms large. Press coverage abounds and civic education is hot. Yet the word “politics” makes many teachers skittish, as they dread falling into the deep ideological and political fault lines that mar our country; every discussion feels like a minefield. Among the teachers with whom I have spoken, though, there has been a sense of relief that this, too, shall pass. The election, even if its results are in dispute, will have happened on November 3, and, with that behind us, we can get back to business.

I’m not so sure about that. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that our national divisiveness and discomfort will wane in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. No matter who occupies the Oval Office in the coming years, the divisions that plague the country will persist. Consequently, the mandate to educate our children in a way that empowers them to mend—or at least navigate—those divisions will also remain. The good news is that this is good work, work that can reinforce our schools’ missions and enliven our classes.

Cross-Country Dialogue

If we are to help students navigate lines of ideological divide, we must give them practice doing so. As a teacher, I tried to expand my classroom by facilitating conversations between my students in Massachusetts and their counterparts in the South. Through a Wordpress blog and classroom-to-classroom video chats, we discussed our perceptions of the “other” across the Mason-Dixon line. In a pattern that repeated itself year after year, my students described Southerners as gun-toting rednecks, while Southerners described us Northerners as bossy, impersonal automatons. Stereotyping gave way to collaboration, though, as students partnered to consider a mock Supreme Court case. Working in tandem to consider whether a school should have suspended a student for brandishing the Confederate flag, students chipped away at their initial stereotypes as they pursued an answer.

The only real drawback of that two-week project was the immense labor it required to establish and maintain the cross-country collaboration. What a pleasure it would have been to outsource some of that work! The ubiquity of Zoom may now make similar conversations much more attainable than they were just a couple of years ago, and there are a number of organizations facilitating intra-national conversations that should appeal to teachers looking to expose their students to different points of view. The National Constitution Center’s Classroom Exchanges connect middle or upper school students with peers across the country to discuss issues related to the First and Fourth Amendments. American Pals revives the tried-and-true pen pal model to “bridge divides and connect America’s classrooms, one letter at a time,” while the Mismatch project of AllSides for Schools provides the technological and curricular infrastructure to “connect students across distance and divides to engage in respectful, face-to-face conversation.” My seventh grade students (the project also caters to upper schoolers) were among the first kids to pilot the Mismatch initiative a couple of years ago, and it has since grown by leaps and bounds. If I were in the classroom this year, I would lean heavily on these organizations to help my students communicate with peers across the country whose viewpoints they might find challenging. And, if my experience partnering with students in the South is any indication, the conversations facilitated through those connections could end up being among the most exciting moments of the year.

A Classroom Focus

Still, a handful of conversations with students in other classrooms—exciting as they might be and as impressive as they will look in the school’s publications—will not, of themselves, bring about the intellectual development we wish to instill. We need to find ways to bake these experiences into the normal dialogue of school. One way to do this would be to adopt a framework to anchor conversations across lines of ideological divide, such as the one created by The Better Arguments Project (BAP). Five principles guide that organization’s approach to fostering meaningful dialogue across difference:
  • Take winning off the table.
  • Prioritize relationships and listen passionately.
  • Pay attention to context.
  • Embrace vulnerability.
  • Make room to transform.
In partnership with the BAP, I created a curriculum suitable for middle or high school students that helps teachers facilitate a series of thought-provoking discussions to introduce those five principles. Using it could be a handy starting point if teachers were to adopt that language in their own school. Whether a school settles on the particular language of the BAP, though, is probably of little consequence. What matters is that teachers pick some sort of guiding principles to help students wade through difficult discussions and that they not only stick with the plan but also encourage other teachers to do the same.

We know that education is most impactful when it reinforces curriculum, both vertically (throughout a student’s years) and horizontally (across disciplines). We will begin to make an impact when this work becomes habitual, when the same expectations that students encountered in fifth grade, for example, are reiterated in seventh and again in 10th grade. It will be at that point, when children have been encouraged to “listen passionately” to a divergent viewpoint, for example, and then when they have that chance again in other disciplines and in later years, that the habit will begin to form. Armed with those habits—not individual experiences, conversations, or lessons—students will eventually navigate or possibly mend the ideological and political divisions of this country.

Teachers Have Homework, Too

None of this is likely to happen, frankly, until we teachers do our own work. If we are to genuinely invite students to reach across lines of ideological divide, we must ourselves be eager to do so, and getting to that point requires that we practice what we preach. As if we need more work! The pandemic is exhausting. Our masks slip and our glasses fog, and by the time this piece goes to print we are all likely to be either relieved that our candidate of choice has won or deflated by the loss. Either way, we will want to take a breather from all this political talk, which seems fair enough. The work, though, will remain, and if we are to be our best for our students, we will need to lean in to that work.

If it has been challenging (or maddening) to understand a viewpoint from across the political aisle during this past electoral cycle, that is probably because we humans are predisposed to tribalism. Evolution has built that instinct into us, and the reality of our modern existence—media bubbles and ideological echo chambers—has exacerbated the tendency for us to retreat into our own “tribes.” One simple way to gently untether ourselves from our “tribe” is to reconsider our news feed. AllSides provides a range of news sources for every major story of the day, while the Flip Side focuses on a single event and packages news snippets from across the political spectrum. For a handy mobile app, try Read Across the Aisle, which provides access to the full spectrum of news sources and then helps you monitor where your choices fall on the political spectrum.

If those steps whet your whistle, wade a bit deeper into the work by engaging in conversation with people who hold contradictory views. Living Room Conversations facilitates such opportunities, and Braver Angels conducts online debates and conversations on contentious topics. This work is not easy—I found it taxing to listen to the arguments of those with whom I disagreed during a Braver Angels conversation about the Second Amendment—but it is worthwhile. We simply cannot strengthen these muscles without doing some lifting, and we cannot expect to convey a genuine and enthusiastic call to arms to our students to engage in this work if we have not bought into it ourselves.

Conclusion

It has been my experience that kids are much more comfortable finding commonalities than they are in acknowledging differences. When partnered with their Southern counterparts, my students have delighted in finding the ties that bind (“You play soccer too! You listen to Kendrick Lamar!”) and downplayed their differences (“Oh, we didn’t really mean to call you rednecks.”), which makes sense from a developmental standpoint; it is good to fit in. It has also been my experience, though, that we adults can be profoundly conflict-avoidant. At no point is this discomfort more obvious than when a school balks at the prospect of getting into “politics.” I led a workshop recently with middle school students, which was to serve as a deep dive into the Constitution, but on the eve of the workshop an anxious torrent of emails shot my way, suggesting that, in discussing Article I of the Constitution, I should take care not to name any specific politicians.

We need to stop this madness. Schools cannot be so afraid of “politics” that they rob students of the chance to navigate lines of difference. As long as the “p” word leaves schools cowering, they are doing students a grave disservice. Will we no longer bring up the topic of modern-day immigration when we study Ellis Island because politicians, too, have discussed it? Should we stop teaching climate science? Or perhaps shutter the whole science department because science itself has become politicized? Rather than tiptoeing down that imaginary line that could magically separate the merely “topical” from the “political,” we teachers need to embrace the opportunities before us. I would not consider my collaboration with students in Alabama and Tennessee to have been “political” in nature, but, frankly, I do not care either way. I would hope that it laid the groundwork for students to explore differences, and that disposition could lead to a more functional body politic.

This work, then, cannot and should not be the work strictly of those among a school’s faculty who deal with civic education and by extension “politics.” This work—the work of helping our students honor ideological differences—is our work, collectively. We must strengthen the same muscles we wish to develop in our students, and then collectively, as school communities, we can chip away at our mistrust of the “other” and assume that a divergent political stance is the product of a sincerely held belief that we may not yet understand. Only then can we help our students move in the direction of common ground.
Kent Lenci

Kent Lenci (kent.lenci@gmail.com) spent 20 years in independent schools in the Boston area before starting his own consulting business, Middle Ground School Solutions, which helps schools honor political and ideological differences. He can be reached through his website:www.middlegroundschools.com.