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Teaching Opinion

Politics Belongs in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 12, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond when teachers are told we should keep politics out of the classroom?

In Part One, Dr. Angela M. Ward, Holly Spinelli, Rocio del Castillo, Ed.D., and Keisha Rembert shared their responses. Angela, Holly, Rocio, and Keisha also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Abeer Shinnawi, Jennifer Hitchcock, Matt Renwick, and Leah B. Michaels add to the conversation....

“Discussing politics is vital”

Abeer Shinnawi is an 18-year veteran middle school social studies teacher who is the founder and consultant for Altair Education Consulting, LLC. Abeer is also a member of the teacher-advisory group for the National Museum of the Native American. She, along with three other educators, is also the founder of the Arab American Educators Network-AAEN:

The last year I was in a classroom was the 2015-16 academic school at the height of the Clinton-Trump presidential campaigns. That year I taught 8th grade American history to a group of highly charged, extremely intelligent students in an advanced academics class, so you all know that these students will be full of questions and ready to debate with anyone who will listen. Due to the polarizing nature of that campaign, students always wanted to discuss what they read or saw the night before. As an educator, I believed my duty was to help students understand the political nature of the campaign but within the parameters of unbiased, unwavering influence.

During my career, I have encountered many teachers who respond, “I never teach or discuss politics with friends or students.” My counter to that statement is always, “You have the privilege to not have to discuss politics with friends or in your life because the policies that are being discussed the majority of the time do not affect you; therefore, you believe you are immune.” When you are a teacher in any school, but especially a school with students of the global majority, discussing politics is vital for many reasons.

First, students from the global majority are watching intently the adults around them for guidance on how to navigate their own ideas and feelings regarding government policies or practices that affect them. How can you not discuss the Muslim ban to Muslim students who have relatives stuck in other countries? How can you not discuss building the wall to students who are from countries that are direct targets of that rhetoric and discussion? How can you not discuss stripping the medical rights of those from the LGBTQ community when you have students who identify or fear of identifying because of such policies. Discussing politics is vital to helping students navigate the world around them.

Second, how will students learn the divine practice of discourse if they cannot practice that in the classroom. Sure, students will have debates about which American president was most effective in creating American exceptionalism or debate why woman and African Americans should have been written into the Constitution, but learning the skill of debate about a real-life topics that affects students is critical. Students go to school to develop the skills needed to carry them as they transition into adulthood. For our American democracy to be a success, the onus lies on teachers to practice mindful political dialogue with their students, so they are aware of their own perspectives and biases.

Third, discussing politics in class goes beyond a review of each candidate. One of the major skills to develop using politics is the ability to decipher between real and fake news. Political ads and campaigns are always riddled with false, exaggerated, or biased information to win votes. Teaching students how to analyze information allows them to think critically about what they read and hear in the media, which then creates a more well-informed citizen.

Last, the most important aspect to the question for the best ways to respond to teaching politics in the classroom is developing strong relationships with your students when you teach them how to use their voice. Student agency is crucial to childhood development, especially during the late-elementary and middle school years. Students must learn that their voice is valued when they contribute to the larger conversation, but that voice must be respected, understood, and appreciated. That type of environment requires teacher- directed examples, student practice, and continual scaffolding of skills that match the student’s intellectual and social growth.

In conclusion, our country was founded on the idea that debate is healthy and that discussing politics reflects the strong democratic ideals we pride ourselves. Stifling such teachable moments would create a generation that will not appreciate opposing viewpoints and live based on fear of reprisal if they speak their mind. Teachers must also not shy away from discussing politics because, again, those who say they do not need to discuss these topics are the ones who show their privilege, which in the end is not conducive to a productive democratic society. These ideals uphold the status quo.

“Any classroom can work to develop democratic skills”

Jennifer Hitchcock teaches AP Government and Politics for Virginia’s Fairfax County public schools, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and the district’s Online Campus. After 15 years of experience in social studies education, she wakes up each day ready to learn new things and share that enthusiasm with her students:

I am going to say it. Political conversations are bubbling up in every classroom.

Keeping politics out of the classroom does not prepare students for civic life. Placing limits on conversational topics that could bubble to the surface at any point tells these citizens that no one is invested in hearing their opinions. That destroys democracy.

Meira Levinson writes about this in No Citizen Left Behind: We have a civic-empowerment gap. Students do not believe that they can influence the government, which leads to lower rates of political efficacy. Therefore, students with low efficacy engage with government less. This gap flows across our country in predictable ways. Classrooms rich in resources more often participate in democratic classroom activities like debates, mock trials, and discussions about social issues. Yet these types of activities are found to benefit all students, particularly students of color. This matters as it increases the engagement of students in democratic practices like voting, contacting elected officials, and being involved in the community.

There are academic resources to help innovate in civics learning from places like the Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG), the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), and a huge network of leaders found in places like the Center for Civic Education. CIRCLE’s research on improving civic education points toward coursework in civics and government, deliberations of current issues, service learning, student-led voluntary organizations, student voice in schools, and simulations of adult civic roles.

Pause. Do you know if your school does any of this currently?

Yeah, probably most of it ... in a government or civics classroom. However, there is no invisible barrier between my classroom and the course on environmental science down the hall. Students learning to code are engaging in political activities, as their politics are embedded in their algorithms. Politics is always just below the surface and at any point can erupt. Telling kids to ignore the political implications of the content on the table tells students to ignore these skills in the workplace and out in the community. It ignores the practicing of political applications and consideration of intended and unintended effects of such applications.

So, any classroom can work to develop democratic skills. And the response to “leave politics out of the classroom” is “politics are already present in my classroom, regardless of what I teach.” The key here is assuring your community that the politics discussed are relevant to your content and not an exposition of your politics.

Perhaps a little innovation and some collaboration with that civics teacher may help overcome this civic-empowerment gap.

Before you jump, know that you have to have a plan. There must be some skill that you employ to help students practice democratic skills. Certainly these skills should be developed throughout the year. Of course, practicing the skills of respectful deliberation is important. Things like close listening, taking notes, learning how to ask questions, and counterarguing are employed all within the boundaries of a respectful and shared experience.

Also, students need to learn the skill of acquiring information without you. This helps take off the pressure of wading into problematic conversations where the teacher takes center stage on political issues. Your students should be the focus of the discussion. Perhaps you start with a close reading of a few selected articles together. Students may be ready to adapt and apply other models like the SCIM-C technique (Summarize, Contextualize, Infer, Monitor, and Corroborate) used in historical inquiry. Maybe you prefer training your students to employ the Stasis Theory in which students investigate the facts, define the issue, determine the seriousness of the issue, and develop a plan of action. Whatever your plan is, continue to develop that plan so students have a road map of how to progress through their journey.

Talking politics can be nerve-wracking, particularly current events. In my own classroom, I tend to stall on breaking news stories for a few classes as stories take time to develop. This also gives students time to familiarize themselves with the issue, to learn about the issue, and draw their own conclusions. Here are some recommended practices to employ in your classroom.

  • Plan your outcome. Decide in advance key outcomes. How does this connect to your course? What do you plan to achieve? How will you structure and evaluate the experience? How long can you spare? What do you want students to be able to do? Is it appropriate to share this learning external to your class in some way to promote student efficacy? Can you bring in external experts, maybe from your school or community?

  • Build a foundation. Survey the political issue for firm connections to content, curating the underlying curriculum so that your direct instruction naturally supports further student inquiry. The presentation of that content may be through large-group discussions, recorded lecture, targeted readings, and things of the like.

  • Allow students to dive deeper. The critical work is that students do their own research. Research is a skill that is necessary from the hard sciences to the humanities. A great resource to use is a school librarian, who may be able to discuss news-literacy skills or present academic databases. In addition to these resources, students may also want to bring news-media or social- media reporting into the discussion to allow for comparison.

  • Facilitate student ownership. Enabling student dialogue and deliberation is democratic work. Structured debates, interviews, mock trials, fishbowls, and small-group dialogues allow students to process their research in the context of the foundational instruction. Here, reflection is more important than consensus. Students should produce a snapshot of their thinking as it evolves in the student dialogue that may be helpful in directing debriefs.

  • Consider further action. Democratic skills should aim to terminate in concrete action. This could range from less time-intensive activities like creating informative social-media campaigns or writing a letter to a newspaper or policymaker to far more intensive endeavors. There are many organizations that provide materials to help teachers try these activities in class. Look to organizations like Generation Citizen’s Civics Day or Action Civics, the Civic Action Project from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Mikva Challenge, Civics Unplugged, and Youth As Civics Experts. If this is too far toward a civics class, look to what your students can do inside of your own content that galvanizes the relationship between your class and how it is applied in our communities.

Civics education experts believe that this action is critical in the formation of good citizens. Good citizens are the lifeblood of our communities. While that civics teacher down the hall is doing a great job (or maybe you are the civics teacher!), it is equally important for students to see that the civics classroom is not the only classroom honing skills of a democratic citizenry.

So, say it with me. Political conversations are in our classrooms. We should create environments where they are discussed with an eye to our content. And when we do, we acknowledge that civics education can happen in any classroom to help our democracy thrive.

Teaching students “how to think rather than what to think”

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wis. He is also the author of Digital Portfolios in the Classroom (2017) and 5 Myths About Classroom Technology (2015), both through ASCD. You can read Matt’s most current writings at Read By Example:

An initial response would be to engage in a conversation about their understanding of “politics” with the other person. If we agree that it is the process in which citizens and representatives participate in dialogue and decisionmaking on how best to run a city, state, or country, then it would seem unwise to “keep” politics out of the classroom.

We might also point toward the standards, especially social studies, as a reason for not only bringing politics into the classroom but also enhancing its presence throughout our curriculum. Politics can be a very engaging and relevant topic for students to examine and learn more about. Look at the phenomena of the “Hamilton” musical or the Black Lives Matter movement; they are natural entry points for conversations about the role of politics in society.

My guess is that whoever is telling teachers to keep politics out of the classroom is really advocating for avoiding one-sided conversations in which a political party or an issue is championed over another. That makes sense, and educators should adhere to that request. Yet to not engage in politics leaves out great opportunities for skill development in speaking and listening, critical thinking, perspective taking, and active citizenship.

Teachers and leaders can help ensure that instruction is focused on teaching students how to think rather than what to think by looking at the themes and strands described in our state and national social studies standards. Here are a few examples, found at the National Council for the Social Studies website:


Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the past and its legacy.


Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

I would challenge anyone to teach these concepts and ideas effectively without touching on politics during any part of instruction. It is both an impossible and an undesirable task. Done well, teaching about politics gives students the tools and mindset to engage in productive conversations with others about issues that should matter to everyone. To not engage students in politics devalues our society’s processes and makes it harder to participate in democracy.

Politics are in the classroom

Leah B. Michaels, a national-board-certified teacher, has taught English, ESOL, philosophy, and theory of knowledge to students from grades 6-12 in England, the Bahamas, and several schools in the United States. A proud union member, she is on the board of directors for the Montgomery County Education Association and serves as the English Department chair at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.:

Throughout more than 20 years in the classroom, I’ve been told periodically that I’m “too political,” based mostly on the texts I used in class or my pedagogy. When I was a newer, younger teacher, I took those words as a stinging criticism and responded by consciously staying “neutral,” never taking a side. But over time, as I grew in confidence and in content knowledge, the difference between partisan or ideological and political began to crystalize for me.

I had never tried to indoctrinate my students or expressed allegiance to any political party or candidate. I began to ask myself what people calling me “political” were actually saying, and, eventually, instead of responding defensively to “keep politics out of the classroom,” I stopped accepting the premise altogether.

Those who say this are revealing much more about themselves than they are about teachers. In English, this advice often comes when a “classic” text is replaced by something more contemporary or written by a BIPOC author—but maintaining the “canon” and defending the status quo is equally political. It is a choice about what, and whom, to value, what to include, what, and whom, to exclude.

Politics is in the classroom, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, just as race matters, even if some like to say they “don’t see color.” These arguments didn’t make sense in the past, but especially in this momentous, turbulent time, it’s difficult to even imagine making them in earnest. It is past time for curricula and pedagogy that reflect the full history of the United States and include the voices and experiences, hopes and dreams of all who live here. Anything less is a dereliction of a teacher’s duty. I’m not here to teach my students what to think; I’m here to teach my students how to think by exposing them to a wide variety of content and presenting it in ways that promote critical thinking and engagement. If that’s perceived as bringing politics into the classroom, that’s OK with me.

Thanks to Abeer, Jennifer, Matt, and Leah for their contributions!

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