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Every year presents its own unique challenges and surprises. The next several months of this one will likely not be exceptions to that fact. The fall elections mean that we can expect to hear an abundance of questions and commentary about political issues. In our classrooms, students may raise issues and seek responses. We may be challenged to help students make sense of what they see and hear. There may be times when we cannot avoid discussing what is happening in the world around us. 

We might take the position that political issues do not have a place in school and the classroom. However, refusing to allow consideration of political issues risks not preparing students for life. Our democracy depends on a citizenry that is engaged and can make informed judgements. Some argue that the absence of civic understanding and engagement has led us to where we find ourselves today.  

Fortunately, there are steps we can take and strategies we can employ to help our students—and us—deal with these difficult and often controversial issues. Our advantages can be found in preparation, practice, and positioning before statements are made, questions are asked, or accusations are leveled. The good news is that these same actions can reinforce our efforts with classroom management and maintaining a positive classroom climate in general. Of course, we need to seek and follow any guidance provided by our campus and district leadership and calibrate our approach considering the age and maturity of our students.  

Preparing students BEFORE political issues surface: 

  1. Set ground rules for dialogue and debate. Practice with students the processes of engaging in dialogue and participating in productive debate using relevant topics that are not deeply contested or highly political.  
  1. Insist on and help students to practice active, respectful, and effective listening. Reinforce the importance of seeking first to understand, then to be understood. Of course, we too need to model readiness to listen, remaining open-minded and responding thoughtfully.  
  1. Support students to engage in respectful disagreement while resisting vilification. Just because some people might disagree with us does not mean they are evil. Disagreement in the context of dialogue can even lead to learning.  
  1. Teach students the difference between fact and opinion. Emotions can cloud judgment and lead students to make and repeat claims that have no basis in fact. Lessons on fact versus opinion can then lead to lessons about credibility, as the next point will explain. 
  1. Design activities to help students recognize credible and reliable information sources. Teach students to analyze information, uncover assumptions, check sources, and look for objective confirmation. Explore with students the importance of facts and evidence over proclamations and accusations.  

Considerations for us WHEN political issues surface: 

  1. Adopt a stance of curiosity and inquiry, when appropriate. We might ask, “What leads you to think that?” or “If you had to prove your case in court, what evidence would you present?” Seek evidence and information over assumption and opinion. (If the statement or question appears to solely be intended to shock, provoke, or draw us in, we might invite the student to discuss the topic with us later and sidestep a public confrontation.)  
  1. Explore the values that underly the statement or question. Depending on the issue, we might explore the implications of universal values such as honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect for the rights and dignity of all, and equal treatment and opportunity. 
  1. If it seems appropriate in the situation and we choose to share our opinion, we can draw on the values that apply to explain our thinking and perspective. In some circumstances, failing to share at least some of our viewpoint can leave students unsure of what we value and wondering about our commitment. The key is to ground what we say in shared values such as honesty, fairness, compassion, responsibility, and justice.  
  1. Remember that the audience is not just the students in your class. Emotionally charged topics will be discussed beyond our classroom walls. Students’ friends and family members, as well as our colleagues and administrators, will almost assuredly learn of the discussion. We need to be thoughtful, measured, and intentional in how we handle volatile topics.  

Final thoughts: What message do we send if our students do not have access to our critical thinking, careful analysis, and considered perspective? Will they conclude that we don’t care? Will they assume that what they have heard from others must be correct? Are we being honest with our students if we claim neutrality on important, difficult, and complex issues? Obviously, choosing not to comment, take a position, or respond is a response. 

Thought for the Week

When we understand another person’s perspective, what they are thinking and feeling, we are better able to relate to them and understand their needs.

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