Advising the YRC

Spring 2020

By Gonzalo del Real

Politics in the classroom is a tricky thing sometimes, especially in an era of extremely divisive identity politics.

I was raised in Venezuela and the U.S. by a very liberal single mother who inculcated in me from the time I was very little a high sense of social justice and taught me about oppressive dictatorships (like the one we had fled in Chile when I was just two years old). She took me to NOW meetings and sat me down to watch the news every day—from the age of 9 on.

When I was 15, however, the opportunity presented itself for me to live with a family in Oregon for my last three years of high school. Longtime friends of my mom, they were a very conservative family. This family of lifelong Republicans, where the father was the chief of staff to the Republican speaker of the Oregon State House, gave me a new home. Our discussions at the dinner table and beyond were detailed and researched, and I learned much from him and my “mom #2,” as I would come to call her. The many ways in which they were very conservatively Republican often seemed in conflict when, for example, one of them was also pro-choice. While living with them didn’t change my views much, it did improve my understanding of conservative arguments and gave me a much better understanding and rationale for my own more liberal ideologies. Furthermore, it showed me that one could live on both sides of the aisle, depending on the issues.

It was this experience that has molded how I now conduct dialogue in my classroom. As a language teacher, I am interested in having students understand not only the grammatical value of language but also how that language is shaped by the various perspectives, cultures, and traditions of a wide variety of people. This includes understanding the plight of immigrants and refugees. I teach a class called Latinos in the Lehigh Valley in which students are exposed to many Latinos from all walks of life. This helps dispel the stereotypical labels—“lazy,” “drunk,” “rapists,” “murderers,” and “illegals”—that have been flung at us recently.

We began the course by reading two texts, Latino USA and Harvest of Empire,1 watching educational videos on the history of Latinos in the U.S., and studying U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and its many incursions into the region. We go from the Monroe Doctrine to the Mexican-American War, from the Roosevelt Corollary to the infamous wall. Our guest speakers included Latinx university professors, immigration lawyers, local teachers, the first Latina councilwoman in our area, a local photographer, and a local PBS producer and anchorwoman, Their perspectives on their identities and lives as Latinx in the Lehigh Valley were insightful to the students who subsequently created empathetic connections with them. The students researched a variety of Latino issues in the Lehigh Valley, and we were invited to appear on the local PBS station, where students received a tour and were on camera discussing their experiences in the class. The class opened a dialogue about how people can interact and get to know each other, even if they disagree on the most personal of issues.

In addition to this class, I am also the faculty adviser for the Young Republicans Club (YRC). The seed was planted early in 2016 when one of the students, Drew, whom I had taught in Spanish 2 and 3 and was now in my AP Spanish course, showed up to my class with a MAGA hat. I respectfully asked him to take it off, as I allow no headgear in my class except for religious or cultural reasons. After class, I asked him to stay for a couple of minutes and explained that this was a rule of mine across the board, no matter whether it was MAGA or Red Sox. He chuckled and understood. Then, I took a chance. I said, “Just so you know, my daughter could be labeled anchor baby, and your candidate has made some really disparaging remarks toward people like me and my daughter.” His thoughtful reply started a conversation between us that, now in his third year of college, is still ongoing. When in town, he visits our family, and we have wonderful conversations about the current political climate in respectful, thoroughly personal, and academically thoughtful ways.

Other students came to know about Drew’s experience with me, and as our relationship grew from teacher-student to colleagues, other students took note. The year after Drew graduated, two Spanish 3 students wanted to create a club for their conservative classmates to have a place and voice to discuss their positions in what is otherwise a rather liberally minded school. When they came to speak to me, I offered to be the faculty sponsor but left the decision up to them as to which faculty or staff member to choose. The students returned to me a few days later and asked me to take the role. My role, however, as I then defined it to them, was to be a check on the divisive and negative rhetoric. I also intended to force them to think about both sides of the issues and thereby strengthen their arguments, just as my dad in Oregon had done for me. This continues to be true still, as we stay on task and I show them how to argue effectively. Now in our third year, the group avoids personal attacks and, instead, endeavors to have a thorough, cogent, and fact-based discussion.

Our small microcosm seems at odds with the world beyond, where we have gotten away from this, and others are denigrated for their beliefs if they do not match ours. We grasp our side’s opinions so tightly we fail to hear, much less listen to, the other side. In the YRC, we encourage our student members to make economic, social, religious, and scientific arguments for their positions. The club leaders are expected to come to meetings prepared with an agenda of salient topics and a path to the discussion: a type of loosely structured lesson plan. We have also invited our more liberal students to listen and participate. All students, no matter their political persuasion, must be ready to make their arguments in ways that are researched, with sources to cite, data to reference, and cogent arguments to explain. Over the last three academic years, students have discussed elections, abortion rights, gay marriage, economic policy, immigration policy, and the wall, among many other subjects.

During the students’ discussions, my focus is to protect the process. I am fond of telling them that I am the parliamentarian. My role is not to challenge their opinions but to challenge the validity of their arguments and maintain both order and decorum. As any good teacher would do, I ask them to cite their sources, validate their assertions, and acknowledge their feelings without allowing those feelings to take over their debates. In this way, I am trying to challenge them to think about why they have these ideas, how they can more effectively and persuasively deliver them, and how to think like the other side so that their debating purpose is not simply to counteract opposing arguments but to see whether they can arrive at a compromise—something sorely lacking in many of today’s adults, including those in Congress. Our purpose in dialogue is an exchange, not a win. That exchange is expected to create a better understanding, not a divisive putdown.

Respect, empathy, and kindness are at the core of our discussions at both the YRC and the Latinos in the Lehigh Valley class. And parents have thanked me for it. Parents have spoken to me about my role and told me how their children were at first incredulous as to why I was the faculty sponsor of the YRC—even wondering whether I had an ulterior motive. It didn’t take long, however, for both students and parents to realize my actual purpose, and they thanked me for challenging them to think beyond their microcultures. I share with them how I hope that in this entire process we can work together to be able to disagree and argue and yet still be kind to each other, just as my Oregon family and I did 30 years ago. In the long run, most of us just want the same things; we just disagree on how to get there. However, without kindness, empathy, and compromise, we will get nowhere, and our students will be far worse off because of it.

Endnotes

  • 1 Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz (illustrator), Latino USA: A Cartoon History (New York: Basic Books, 2012); Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
Gonzalo del Real

Gonzalo del Real (yodaman1272@gmail.com) is a Spanish teacher who serves on the Diversity Committee and is the faculty adviser of the Young Republicans Club at Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.