Push the Uncomfortable: Exploring Politics in the Classroom

Spring 2020

By Donita Duplisea and Katie Young

In teacher training courses, instructors counsel teachers that they should keep the “status quo” and never bring politics or religion into the classroom, yet we also are told that the civic engagement of youth is waning. Which of these is the best choice when dealing with those who will run this world in the future? What do students need to know of the “real” world outside of the classroom? What kind of future citizens do we want—those who follow like sheep or those who fight for a future worth having? To my teaching partner (co-author Katie Young) and me, these were the first thoughts explored when we wanted to create this new hybrid of a course. We contemplated these questions: What is it that we really want the students to know and do? and What is it we have really wanted to explore or try pedagogically that we have not had a chance to do so far in our careers? That is how we matched our desires to the curriculum, not the other way around.

In this manner, we were able to focus on the skills of a grade 11 university-level English class and “marry” it with a grade 12 course on Social Justice. The teaching is political, covering topics that are supported by both of our curricula. The interdisciplinary course is taught in an every-other-day tumbling course schedule, but we actually see the students every day, thereby ensuring that there is never a break in their learning and each piece is interconnected, supported, built on, and deeply explored. Katie and I are both English teachers and History/Humanities teachers, so no matter the skill or topic, we seamlessly complement each other’s skill set.

Safe Spaces

We firmly believe that safe spaces are the underpinning of all productive and healthy classroom communities. When we were developing our classroom norms, laying the foundation of our classroom community took special consideration. We spent multiple hours discussing and planning what our approaches to the course were, what our perspectives regarding social justice were, and what our hopes and dreams for the course would be. This allowed us to understand our perception of social justice and how our identities as individuals were also tied to how we might teach about a topic like social justice and, as a result, politics. We determined that our learners should undergo a similar practice of unpacking what their identities were and in what ways this influenced how, as learners, they would understand political topics and be able to identify some biases or privileges they held.

From the onset, students were asked to critically consider both themselves and the topic of social justice, and so we called it critical social justice. We asked our learners, what does respect mean and how do we practice social justice.1 While the students were actively deconstructing their own identities, we employed activities that asked them to mine below the surface, as well as co-constructing class norms with the central focus of critical social justice theory. We were astounded by the thoughts of our learners as they demonstrated to us that they had a hunger to discuss difficult topics and they wanted their voices to be heard. Many of our learners already had a diverse understanding of politics in Canada and the United States, among other controversial issues such as mental health, sexuality, and reproductive rights.

Though we had already begun to have passionate discussions, we believed that it was very important that these discussions integrate research and concepts we had learned throughout the week in our class. Thus began our model of a weekly Intellectual Salon, modeled after the French intellectual salons of the 17th and 18th centuries. Our salon model is multidisciplinary, and it offers our learners exposure to new ideas, powerful questions, and learning outside of the confines of the “typical” classroom structure. A salon is intended to inspire big questions.2 Our salons all ask a big question or multiple questions, and our learners must answer the questions using critical theory, data, or research-driven lenses of what we have learned in class. Though we provide our learners with the material, they always do their own research to supplement and support their ideas.

It was in these classroom scenarios that learners found their voices. We held our breath, we were intense, we cried, we argued, and we laughed. In these salons, we were all learners, students and teachers alike. As we critically mined questions such as could the events in The Handmaid’s Tale really happen, we were mining our understandings of feminist theory, economics, environmentalism, politics, history, and science. Sometimes, topics like police brutality, the impeachment of Trump, rape, and abortion were particularly difficult. We practiced calling in our learners rather than calling them out, and we worked hard to ensure that everyone was heard. In moments like these, we often debriefed with our learners beyond class time because we knew that topics such as these were tough, and we wanted to support our kids as much as we could.

Push the Uncomfortable

One of the key points we decided from the beginning is that if this is a thematic endeavour on social justice, then we could not sugarcoat the politically harsh world we live in. We would instead need to ensure that we supplied students with a variety of texts and media that reflected issues they are sure to have experienced or will be exposed to in the future. Our activities and assessments reflect skills they will need in the future—from group academic writing, simulation activities, attending political forums and exploring conversations with a variety of speakers and experts, to formulating questions. We started here at home with difficult nonfiction texts (Seven Fallen Feathers3) and combined the learning with the dystopian novel (The Marrow Thieves4), balancing the fears of the future with the realities of Canadian Indigenous youth: access to education, clean water, and housing; the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic; neglect by the government; and suicide. From there, we branched off to include Canadian and world issues that plague all people, creating intersectionalities of injustice.

The Intellectual Salons are the pinnacle of every week’s learning, a safe place for students to sit in discomfort, speak their truth, and negotiate through issues that are as muddled for adults as they are for them. “Sitting in the uncomfortable” was sometimes literal as we waited for the discussions to start or continue, but it was essential to both of us that students felt the discomfort of learning and moved away from the “spoon-feed and regurgitate” thinking. This might be what students struggled with the most, rather than the political and socioeconomic atrocities they researched—the fact that we would not “give” them the answer. But we did supply them with a strong support system to try, fail, and try again through a team-based feedback system. All assessments had three rounds, including feedback from two teachers, peer feedback, and self-evaluation, combined with a one-on-one interview with both teachers. Was it uncomfortable for the teacher and the student to advocate for a mark? Yes! Sometimes students complained at first about the extra levels of work; they just wanted to be told what to do to get the highest mark possible. But this was part of the uncomfortable yet real-world skills we were teaching them. This process enabled students to make written work better and not just complete it to “get it done.”

Critical Thinking and Tools for Disagreeing

Though our learners often label themselves along the political spectrum of left to right, we continue to encourage them to think critically and to broaden their understanding of what it means to be “political.” We developed tools for discussion to be used both in the Intellectual Salon and in our classroom discussions. These tools include what we call the six academic conversation facilitators. These provide our learners with sentence stems that further academic discourse. At the beginning of the year, our learners were given a colour-coded chart with suggestions and key phrases that helped them to (1) challenge ideas; (2) state an idea; (3) support ideas with examples; (4) elaborate and clarify; (5) synthesize; and (6) paraphrase. For example, the phrase “although you make a good point about... I think… because…” acknowledges the point of others, while simultaneously helping our learners to find ways to respectfully disagree.  Not only did these conversation tools help establish our safe space, they also helped us work together to find solutions to difficult problems.

Advice for Teachers

As we sat thinking about this article and what we had learned along our journey, we consolidated a list of six points of self-reflection.

We are still learning. Do not think for a moment that we do not know how hard this is for all of us. As teachers, we struggle with being uncomfortable all the time and yet model to the students how to navigate the best we can. Both of us feel that as we live in the uncomfortable, we are learning and pushing our teaching skills. For that, I know I feel blessed to have this opportunity to grow as a teacher.

Know your learners. We cannot stress enough that this way of teaching and bringing a real-world political microcosm into the classroom has taught us much about our students and ourselves. The students show us their strengths and their vulnerabilities every day, living the uncomfortable and pushing their understanding. Both we and our students rely on formative information gathered daily, and we do so through observations, conversations, and products—not one or the other. Knowing our students well also enables us as teachers to measure the temperature of a topic and either supply more support or change directions easily if needed.

Know yourself. We think we know ourselves until we stand in front of a class with a well-meaning and powerful lesson and a student says “Why?” or “What do you really believe?” Sometimes we need to model being in the uncomfortable and not being an expert who knows everything, even though this is counterintuitive to our training. Be ready to have students change who you think you are, and be ready to show them how to navigate changes in thinking and learning.

Be ready for your heart to hurt and to sing. Be ready for a bumpy ride. Be ready for students to oppose your views and take pleasure in the fact that they are countering your core values. Be ready to feel the pain of students, mostly through ignorance, reflecting the hurt they have experienced and trying to push it onto others. Be ready to protect the humanity of all in your classroom, no matter how you feel. Be ready to deflect and counter those points with research, however calm you do not feel. Be ready to have many “aha” moments and a quiet understanding of the plight of others for the first time. Be ready to feel joy as students share the tears and the laughs in the safe space you have created. This is what you want them to do: to be ready for anything that comes their way, negotiate through the feelings with research, and come to their own conclusions.

Have a partner who complements your skill set but reflects your core values, one with whom you can model disagreement in front of the students. This may be contradictory to what we have stated about living in the uncomfortable and stretching our pedagogical skills, but when it comes to planning and creating a solid framework, you want a teaching partner who complements your skill set and reflects your core values. Without these parallel core values, we would be wasting a great deal of time with internal strife, increasing our work and emotional load. My partner and I often disagree about our interpretations of texts. We model our conflicting views in front of the students in a professional and academic way, but I know that, even if we do not see things exactly the same way, we value and respect each other’s opinions and intelligence.

Practice what you preach. The final culminating activity is to plan and execute a Social Action plan based on students’ beliefs and the needs of their community after speaking with experts in the field. Our students are currently creating apps for teens struggling with addiction issues, focusing on the education of their peers on teen mental health, creating online resources and simulation fundraisers for homeless youth, developing a resource exchange with Indigenous communities, and preparing a day-long focus on the environment. This is our youth in action, designing and implementing plans to cause change in areas they believe need support. This is not teachers telling them what to do as a project, but students taking ownership, using the skills from both of the classes, and following their hearts. We ask the students to face their fears and stand up for what they believe in. And, by writing this article, we, their teachers, are modeling vulnerability while also being “political” in front of their peer group.

Teachers often avoid discussing political topics in the classroom for fear of repercussions from parents or reprimand from administrators. Some teachers feel that students will get bored or disinterested or that it is simply not the place of teachers to discuss such things in school and that they are only able to teach the subject matter. Our experience could not have been more different. Not only did we find fruitful grounds for discussing our course matter, but we were also able to take a multidisciplinary approach that offered real-world experiences. Frequently, parents would comment, “This is the only course they discuss at home,” and “Our family was discussing what you learned in class yesterday. We had a lively debate!” We feel that this is a true measure of success. We also found that our skills and expertise married extremely well; not only did our students learn, but we also learned so much from them and from each other. Creating a safe space for ourselves as partners and for our learners meant that we all grew as individuals by pushing ourselves beyond what we thought a classroom would look like. In this process, we are all becoming more astute citizens of the world.


  • 1 Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017), p. xix.
  • 2 Kacy Qua, “How to Throw an Intellectual Salon,” Medium, ART + Marketing, August 1, 2017; online at artplusmarketing.com/how-to-throw-an-intellectual-salon-a95e3b5e2277.
  • 3 Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (Toronto, Canada: House of Anansi Press, 2019).
  • 4 Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (Toronto, Canada: Dancing Cat Books, 2017).
Donita Duplisea

Donita Duplisea (dduplisea@hts.on.ca) is currently department head of Global Studies at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill, Canada.

Katie Young

Katie Young (kyoung@hts.on.ca) teaches English at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill, Canada.