Throughout the 2016 presidential election, I found myself, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Hagerstown, Maryland, asking fellow teachers about how they were handling the divisive tone of the election. I was surprised to hear that some teachers were told not to discuss politics in class or that their in-class discussions would quickly turn into student screaming matches.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) surveyed more than 10,000 administrators, teachers, counselors and support staff about their post-election classroom and school environment. Survey data showed that half of teachers surveyed were uncomfortable bringing up the election and politics in their classrooms.
I firmly believe that we are responsible for teaching our students how to engage in a political discussion. I distinctly remember debating the contentious issues of gun control laws, abortion laws and reparations in my own middle and high school social studies class. Now, as a teacher, I often think of the skills I developed by engaging in those debates and listening to the opposing side’s views.
I decided to encourage conversation rather than lessen debate in my class. While the media’s political conversation grew more divisive, I pushed my students from very diverse backgrounds to engage in respectful discussions of current events. Here’s how I did it:
Tips for Fostering Civil/Political Discourse in Class
- Build a community where students feel comfortable exchanging ideas. Creating a safe learning environment starts on day one of the school year. In my classroom, students build a class contract that reflects our norms or guidelines for the upcoming year. These norms are based on our school’s positive behavior code. Students can also build their own contracts for discussions.
- Use protocols to structure your class discussions. One of my favorite tools is the Philosophical Chairs Protocol. This is my go-to protocol for debating controversial issues in class.
- Facilitate discussions early and often. Informed class discussions should become part of your normal class routine. Think of your own life. Adults show empathy, listen to one another, make claims and look for evidence constantly. Why limit our students to one debate every nine weeks? Having more discussions increases students’ discourse skills. Practice makes perfect!
- Provide a backchannel. If students have something to say but don’t feel comfortable saying it out loud, give them an avenue to communicate their opinion. Google Classroom, Padlet and Today’s Meet are all ways to support digital collaboration between students. I’ve had a number of students who started the year only sharing their claims and evidence via Google Classroom in September. By May, they were participating verbally in class discussions.
Jim Rossi is an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Northern Middle School in Hagerstown, Maryland. He serves as Northern Middle School’s International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme Coordinator. Additionally, he is a Ford’s Theatre National Oratory Master Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter @MrRossiNMS or on his website mrrossinms.weebly.com.