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Hot Summer Thinking: Politics in the Classroom

By Rod Powell — June 28, 2016 5 min read
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Summer is here in North Carolina, and teachers are settling into welcome summer routines. But in the blogosphere, they’re heating up and getting downright incendiary.

The igniting issue? Politics in the classroom.

Like all good teachers, I’m already thinking about my social studies teaching craft—you know, reflecting on the past year to prepare for the next year.

Some questions I’ve been considering for my upcoming senior-level Civics and Economics class include:

  • Should teachers share political views with students?
  • If so, how?
  • When does sharing political views become indoctrination?

Let me give a little background to my thinking.

You all probably know by now about North Carolina’s House Bill 2—the infamous ‘Bathroom Bill’ (See? There I go, politicizing again with word choice).

House Bill 2 requires that all citizens in North Carolina use the public bathroom of the gender assigned to their birth certificates. Simple enough, right? But there are other provisions in the bill that limit a citizen’s right to sue in North Carolina courts, limit local governments from protecting economic rights of citizens, remove civil rights protections from LGBT citizens, and make sure that each part of the bill stands on its own.

There—a synopsis of North Carolina House Bill 2. I tried to be as neutral as possible, but you could probably discern my liberal bias.

Therein lies my story.

As part of an ongoing current events series in my Personal Law class this spring, my students and I examined House Bill 2. My intent was to study the law-making process and the forces that shape our laws. I also wanted to explore how complex the process is and how the final version of a law may be different than its original intent.

Here’s a quick overview of the lesson. The lesson included close readings of primary and secondary sources as well as small and large group discussions.

  • Students used laptops to find at least two articles of their choice related to North Carolina House Bill 2. They had to find one article supporting the bill and one opposing it. During their close readings, they took notes, including a synopsis and key vocabulary used to evoke emotion and sway opinion.
  • Students paired with partners and shared findings.
  • One person in each small group shared key points of discussion with the whole class.
  • A whole group discussion identified a list of arguments in support of the bill and a list of those against.
  • Students were then given a copy of the bill and were instructed to closely read. They were to summarize, paraphrase, and review unfamiliar words.
  • Another pair-and-share was conducted to discuss the bill, and results were reported out to the class.
  • A whole group discussion was held to create a class paraphrase of the components of the bill.
  • Students posted reactions to the bill on an electronic bulletin board.

Although this was not a perfect lesson, I was pleased with the high level of student engagement throughout the activity. So pleased that I wrote an op-ed for EducationNC describing the lesson and including some samples of anonymous student reactions.

Then the fireworks started. The comments on my op-ed were angry in nature and made me wonder what I did wrong.

I was bewildered, hurt—and yes, a little bit angry.

But I put on my “big-boy veteran-teacher-always-looking-to-improve-my-craft” pants and began to listen and wonder—was I guilty of indoctrinating my students with my views?

Maybe so, but is that bad? That may be food for thought for another discussion.

So I have taken this experience and crafted a list of lessons learned for incorporating politics in the classroom in a manner that avoids a sense of indoctrination and includes all voices.

Here goes:

  • Be thorough and inclusive in materials surrounding the issue by including readings and voices from all sides and points of view. It is especially important to introduce these materials in a neutral manner—difficult as it may be. After all, teachers are human and sometimes have strong political feelings. But these should be kept “under wraps.”
  • A special emphasis on close reading of appropriate documents is needed to examine point of view, bias, and time/place considerations. In my House Bill 2 lesson, a close reading of the original ordinance would have provided point of view and time/place considerations, thus giving students the sense of “Oh, that’s why they included that.”
  • Invite community members of all persuasions into the classroom to talk, speak, lecture, or discuss key issues. What a perfect way to involve parents who fear their children are being indoctrinated. Other guests might include lawyers speaking on legal ramifications of political decisions or local business leaders on economic considerations.
  • Create a living political spectrum in the classroom using an “Are you a liberal or conservative?” activity. Students would rate themselves on a survey of political-thought questions and receive a number corresponding to their degree of liberalism or conservatism. Have them arrange themselves according to their rankings, with the extremes on opposite ends of the room. Student pair-and-share discussions could be created by varied groupings, liberal with liberal, conservative with liberal, etc. This would also serve as a way for those with unpopular views to find strength in numbers.
  • Emphasize respect for differing views during class discussions. All students should feel comfortable sharing their views.
  • Examine differing viewpoints from varied sources and news outlets. Consider how language is used to persuade and convince. For students who are inexperienced or not politically conscious, supply a more specific list of sites or articles representing balanced viewpoints.
  • Consider how to engage all students in the discussion. Many students may have unpopular views and may be reluctant to share them for fear of ridicule. Some may not be able to form or articulate opinions. These students might be allowed to simply summarize both sides of an issue without judgment. Technology would serve well here to allow anonymous posting on a monitored electronic discussion board.

The end goal in a politically aware classroom should be one in which students do not accept commentary on political issues at face value, but question arguments of both sides of an issue and make their own informed decisions using wide ranging evidence and thought.

So should we indoctrinate our students?

This teacher says yes—indoctrinate them to question everything and make informed decisions.

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