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Teaching Opinion

Readers Respond: Should Politics Be Kept Out of the Classroom?

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 18, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three 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.

In Part Two, Abeer Shinnawi, Jennifer Hitchcock, Matt Renwick, and Leah B. Michaels added to the conversation.

In Part Three, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Carolyn M. Shields, Timothy Hilton, and Bill Ivey contributed their commentaries.

This series is “wrapped up” by numerous educators who have sent in responses on social media:

Politics or “partisanship”?

David B. Cohen is a national-board-certified teacher, union leader, and writer from Palo Alto, Calif.:

When people claim we should keep “politics” out of the classroom, I think they often mean “partisanship.” Failure to teach about politics reinforces dynamics that produced the status quo: We have an electorate with too many people disengaged or underinformed, easily manipulated, disinclined to engage with anyone whose views differ. We absolutely need the substance of politics in secondary- level classrooms, without the partisanship and crass insults that saturate our media.

Students need to learn about government and elections, engage in research about complex social and political issues, recognize the validity of multiple perspectives, and articulate arguments for or against a position without resorting to distortions or ad hominem attacks.

Educators should not promote parties or candidates or lead students to a favored conclusion as they study issues. However, appropriate teaching about complex issues also cannot lead to equivocation about basic truths or human rights. When a politician tells a demonstrable lie, then it’s a lie—no need for contortions trying to turn the lie itself into something debatable. A teacher could point out, however, that a lie doesn’t make a politician’s position inherently wrong; a senator could lie about a past budget, making the senator less credible, but the lie doesn’t render a proposed budget inherently better or worse.

Human rights should be considered beyond debate in our society, and in our classrooms. There are no arguments for slavery or genocide that we are bound to respect or honor, no matter how some individuals might try to couch a debate in historical “role play” or “playing devil’s advocate.” When human rights are relevant to political debate, educators must draw careful and clear distinctions. For example, we can debate immigration and refugee policies, but there is no debating the depraved immorality of performing unwanted hysterectomies on refugees.

Sparking student interest

Mary Stokke Vides is a teacher at Encina Preparatory High School in Sacramento, Calif.:

When teachers are told we should keep politics out of the classroom, I think that it’s appropriate to ask some questions: How do you decide what content to share with students? What guides your decisions about what authors and current events to explore? Who gets left out?

I find that discussing current events that may be seen as “political” in nature serve multiple purposes: They spark student interest, they spur critical thinking, and this results in richer academic conversation from multiple viewpoints. Take a recent listening activity where students learned about WNBA walkouts in support of the BLM movement. Here is how 9th graders reacted to a news story and discussion prompt about community issues:

“I think it is good that the WNBA is supporting these walkouts. I believe that the athletes decided to protest because that’s what they believed was the right thing to do. Some issues that affect our community inside and out the classroom are homophobia, racism, and police brutality. An issue that I am willing to speak up about is racism because it affects me and all of those around me.”

“An issue that is important to our classroom is staying focused. We get distracted at home a lot and miss things that the teacher said, so staying focused is good.”

"[The WNBA] wanted to support Black Lives Matter because they care and they want to help their community by speaking up. The problem with our classroom community is that sometimes there is bullying, racist things, and discrimination with religion. The issue for me is bullying. Sometimes they make fun of me, hitting me and calling me bad words. I had this situation in my old school and don’t want to have it in this school, too. We need to do something about these problems at school.”

Teachers need to ‘sustain a brave space”

Jason Flom is the director of Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla., and is one of the school’s founding faculty. In 2010, he was named an ASCD Emerging Leader and has served as an ASCD faculty member since 2013. He is also an SRI affiliate:

I think it is important for teachers to create and sustain a brave space for discourse and dialogue. Part of doing so is ensuring each voice has room to be heard. Because the teacher’s voice is (at least theoretically) the most powerful one in the classroom, it risks being too influential and shutting down others when the teacher uses their pulpit for soap boxing.

So, it is my opinion that the educator’s job in regards to politics is to facilitate dialogue, provide facts, and to elevate the voice of those whose identities and intersectionalities are a part of an oppressed group. The challenge is that defining something as “political” is somewhat subjective. For me, Black Lives Matter, climate change, and mandatory mask wearing are not political. But for some, they are highly political. Who determines what qualifies as political?

Our nation has increasing proven our capacity to politicize everything. If I make the argument that our meat-eating habits contribute to climate change, I’m labeled un-American by some. Boom. Diet is now political. However, if i ask, “How does our diet impact the climate?” I’ve brought my politics to the discussion but put the students in charge of the debate. Building teachers’ capacity to ask provoking and essential questions and then facilitate the associated learning cycle will be a more constructive use of our time than trying to define what is or is not political and if teachers are allowed to bring those topics to the classroom.

“Be civil and listen”

Melanie Link Taylor writes the MzTeachuh blog and teaches at Silverado High School in Victorville, Calif.:

Your students and their families represent all variations of ethnicities, religion, and politics. Is it right to wound the quiet student in the corner with your opinion just because, for example, you don’t care for a certain religious group? Maybe their grandma who is raising them is in that group. Do you need to feel so righteous that you insult the candidate that student’s family favors? You know, the student who you try so hard to get to speak and participate in discussions?

So you just MUST be like a rude news anchor on any news source and crush that kid who will never speak in class for fear of your ferocious opinion? Is that professional ? Is that kind? I try to explain with—some people believe this. ... Some people believe that. ... When students get emotional or use belligerent or insulting language (which they hear on the news ALL the time—shame on those ‘journalists”), I remind them we are analyzing, thinking, and respectful participants in democracy. We listen to both sides of every discussion. I tell my students the American people have rights—and we have the responsibility to be civil and listen.

Susan Gaer:

So we were not allowed to bring politics into the classroom. I am very unhappy with the way the election went, and my students were, too. Because I was unable to bring politics into my classroom, I had to pretend what I felt. This is not good for teachers or for students.

Marsha Ratzel:

Laugh hysterically ... don’t they know that all things are political?

Victoria Jane Stolinski:

Teaching IS political!

Camie Lystrup Walker:

I don’t think we should bring our own politics into the classroom, but argumentation is in EVERY content area. What better way to address this than politics. Especially in looking at hypocrisy that happens in politics.

Terri Eichholz:

I think that it is essential to discuss politics in the classroom so that we can help our students to learn how to listen and to disagree with others without demeaning them. It can also help students to recognize the logical fallacies many use in their arguments, so that they can become critical thinkers. Discussions should be inclusive of the many perspectives that are represented by our students, and teachers need to make sure that all students feel safe when they speak. When students see that teachers respect more than one point of view, they will see the benefits of engaging in discourse with many voices in order to understand the complexities of political issues.

Judy O’Loughlin:

Politics could be described as supporting a candidate’s policies, beliefs, etc. But civics instruction would educate your students about the election system, introducing appropriate and specific vocabulary and describing the election procedures, including campaigning, primaries, election process, ballots, popular and Electoral College votes. It’s really important to explain the systems and let the students form their own political opinions when listening to candidates. I think it’s also important to help students find resources that can help them fact-check political claims.

Lisa A Parisi:

Even in elementary school, students come in asking questions. “Why is he allowed to call people names? Why are the EPA regulations being removed? Why does it matter who chooses a judge?” These questions naturally lead to discussions and research. The alternative is to ignore the questions. Not a good alternative.

Brett Williams:

We all have bias. First, we have to acknowledge that, to ourselves and then to our students, not necessarily liberal or conservative, just that we have bias. Second, we have to leave room for other voices. It’s not our job to indoctrinate. We have to allow kids to experiment and throw around ideas from all kinds of different places, including those we may vehemently disagree with. We have to foster in our students the ability to question different claims on their own merits. If we jump in each time we feel our biases are threatened, we’re not teaching, we’re indoctrinating.

Thanks to all the educators who chimed in!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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