How Teachers Can Address Politics at School 'When the World Is on Fire'

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How can teachers help their students navigate today's fraught political climate?

That's a central question in Teaching When the World Is on Fire, a collection of essays from teachers, principals, and other educators, edited by Lisa Delpit.

Delpit, an acclaimed education researcher and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, is best known for her writing on how schools perpetuate racial inequalities. In Teaching When the World Is on Fire, she turns her attention to what she calls the "growing division, incivility, hate, and violence" in today's world.

In the book's essays, teachers write about how politics permeates their classrooms—and they offer advice for colleagues who are trying to help their students understand the world around them. Education Week spoke with Delpit about the book, and how teachers can start these conversations with students. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


There's an ongoing debate about whether teachers should address issues that could be seen as political in school. This collection of essays takes a clear stance: Teachers can, and should, talk about topics like racism and climate change. Why do you think discussion of these topics belongs in the classroom?

I guess I don't view it as the discussion of these topics. I view it as the discussion of children's lives. … School is the place for young people to be able to look at their world, to connect what they're doing in school to their world. ... If we can't connect to it in some way, children, like adults, just refuse to engage.

Are there certain things that teachers, especially white teachers, might need to keep in mind when they're having these conversations?

One of the young authors in the book talked about the importance of listening. If you're not from the community, an integral part of the community that the children are a part of—and most teachers are not today—then it is really important to listen to the children, listen to parents, listen to other adults who might be a part of that community, to get a sense of what kinds of issues are affecting the lives of the students and their families.

I've always thought that teaching should be related to anthropology and ethnography. If you are going into a place that is not familiar, you need to use those kinds of tools—which are mostly listening and trying to make sense of what you hear. Go in with a sense of humility, that you have to learn about what's there.

Throughout the book, teachers write about confronting the uptick in racist slurs and hate speech after the 2016 election. How can teachers address this if it happens in their classrooms?

Teachers need to make it clear that behaving in that way toward others won't be tolerated in classrooms. One teacher I knew a while back had what she called "put-ups." If you put somebody down, then you had to come up with three put-ups that would be positive—and they had to be judged as real by the person that they were talking about.

Young kids, as one of the essays about kindergarten raised, have a sense of fairness and community and wanting people to feel good that sometimes we ignore as adults. Rather than ignore that, I think we should not only nurture it with young kids, but as kids get into ages where there's more likely to be bullying and saying negative things, ... the teacher needs to create an environment where other kids in the class are rewarded for responding to negative slurs or insults.

One of the teachers I worked with a long time ago taught about ancient Egypt, and used the Ma'at system [a moral framework that was the basis for ancient Egyptian law]. Ma'at is seven concepts—like reciprocity, beauty, justice—that people should be focused on. … It gave them a model. It doesn't have to be Ma'at, but I think there are other models teachers can use to talk about how we should interact with each other.

Many of the essays discuss how broader political and legal systems affect students—through deportation, police brutality, or gun violence. How can teachers make students feel safe at school, when many of the dangers kids face are outside of teachers' control?

Obviously, there's no way that we can do that completely. We're all facing those dangers outside of the school walls. I think in school, [we should be] really rallying against this notion of using schools as a pipeline to prison in any way—[we need] to stop criminalizing kids' behavior.

We also have to address trauma that kids experience. There is research that shows that trauma not only affects the children or the people in the community who experience the trauma, but it affects all the other children and all the other bystanders and onlookers, or even those who become aware of that trauma—especially if they share any kind of similarity with the person who's been affected. We have to allow children to process that, and look for ways that teachers can understand the effects of trauma.

Vol. 39, Issue 05, Page 6

Published in Print: September 18, 2019, as Talking Politics at School ‘When the World Is on Fire’
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