Teaching Opinion

Election Year Opportunity and Risk in the Classroom

By David B. Cohen — July 25, 2016 6 min read
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There is a profound responsibility in being a teacher. We hold a position of power and influence in children’s lives, and collectively play a significant role in shaping the future for our communities, states, and nation. However, there are differences of opinion about the primary way that we should exert that influence. Are we supposed to focus exclusively on academic standards to prepare students for higher education? Is it our job to ensure individual and collective economic security for the future? Are we preparing students for responsible citizenship and participation in a democratic society?

I expect few people would pick one of these approaches to the complete exclusion of the others. In an election year, however, I see a particular benefit to considering our role in educating our youngest citizens regarding our government and politics. Naturally, an election year also increases the stakes for teachers to handle this responsibility with the utmost planning and care.

Of course, elections and politics must be folded into coursework in ways fitting the teacher’s curriculum. By the time students are in more advanced and specialized secondary level classes, it might not work in every class. I’m not sure I could make the election relevant to geometry, physical education, or music. While we make adjustments for age, let’s not undersestimate the possibility for younger students to develop their understanding of politics.

As an English teacher, I’ve tended to focus on political rhetoric more than intensive study of the issues themselves. This year, I’ll be teaching two English courses: a social justice-themed course for 10th graders, and American Literature (11th grade). The social justice course will be part of an interdisciplinary program, and the paired course for first semester is U.S. Government. Many of the issues in this election, and the election itself, will naturally fit within the curricular focus of my class. When I’ve taught American Literature in the past, the guiding question for the semester-long course was “What is distinct about American literature?” I wasn’t teaching this course in 2012-13, but I did teach it in 2008-09. My first semester students spent some time examining a few campaign ads and speeches, and also read journalistic essays relating to the election. We noticed the continued relevance of themes from American history and literature, observing how political discourse relied on concepts including liberty, freedom, equality, opportunity, and individualism. The election of an African-American president made race even more relevant than it would otherwise have been in election-year politics. My second semester classes read essays about the now concluded election, and analyzed the rhetoric of inaugural addresses and inaugural poems. These approaches allowed me to make elections and politics relevant to course, and make the course relevant to the real world and students’ future citizenship. I chose small pieces of the big picture, manageable in scope, complex enough to warrant our attention, and focused enough to prevent wide-ranging political shouting matches.

One way to improve the quality and tenor of political discussions in our classrooms, particularly this year, might be to focus on issues and elections beyond the presidential election. Many of the arguments and political positions that are worth discussing can be approached through examination of congressional or gubernatorial races, state elections, or ballot measures. I do worry about what happens once we start talking directly about Clinton and Trump later this year; maybe we could warm up to the task by focusing on non-presidential politics first.

It is of paramount importance that we delve into elections and politics with clear expectations about appropriate academic discourse. We walk a very fine line here, teaching with respect for conflict without sowing conflict. Part of our job is to push every student’s thinking, and discomfort may be expected when we do that. Students need to know, especially older students, that it is not our goal as educators to reaffirm everything they already feel and think they know. We must have balance as a goal, and not “stack the deck.” At the same time, it is not our job to equivocate: if analysis of a certain issue, platform, or candidate reveals a flaw, inconsistency, or outright lie, it is not incumbent upon us to search out a balancing defect in the other side. Our analyses and discussions must raise questions more than provide answers, expose complexities and reveal challenges.

Another interesting question to consider is whether or not to acknowledge your own politics. I’ve taken pride in going to great lengths to mask my partisan views in the classroom, and have always endeavored to make a strong case for positions I personally disagree with, especially when necessary to balance a discussion in my class. Conversely, I’ve heard a government teacher argue persuasively that in the context of a government class for older students, the teacher should disclose personal views, as means of empowering students to better consider the possibility of bias in the information presented to them. These are not mutually exclusive; a teacher who does let students know their own stance can also articulate opposing positions, and should.

In communities that are politically diverse, we need pedagogy that allows for open discussion and respectful disagreement without sowing divisiveness in the classroom. The toxicity of public discourse in the media and online must not become the norm in our schools. We can model a better way for our students to engage around political ideas without hyperbole and vitriol, without denigrating entire groups of people with different views.

In communities that are more politically homogenous, we must avoid further margainalizing students who are in the political minority. Groupthink is a powerful force that needs to be counteracted. Classrooms should be safe spaces for the lone Democrat or Republican to make their case, for the libertarian or socialist to offer their perspective. A teacher has to be willing to validate some less popular political viewpoints, though we can call out unsupported claims and generalizations if we do so even-handedly. I say “validate some” viewpoints, because there are other viewpoints that fundamentally run counter to maintaining a democratic society, and some that are demonstrably false.

Can a teacher just avoid politics? I see the validity of that position, but make no mistake - it’s still a political position, even if non-partisan. Avoiding politics entirely will have an effect on students’ views of politics. Perhaps the effect is to dampen interest in voting and other political activity. Perhaps the effect is to amplify the voices and increase the influence of those who seek to persuade students without engaging any critical thinking. Public schools may be the only civic institutions that bring together a cross-section of our communities with a built-in structure to support genuine dialogue and deeper learning that happens when we study the issues together. We actually need something like that for adults; in the meantime, let’s not waste the opportunity to prepare future adults to make such civic engagement possible.

Photo: A history classroom at Alta Vista High School, Mountain View, CA; by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.