5 Ways to Productively Discuss Politics in Class
This article was written by Adam Hatch - UC Berkeley graduate, son of a teacher, brother of a teacher, and a teacher himself. Adam started a unique English school in Taipei, Taiwan, where kids learn to research and write articles in English. The articles are published on the first ever English newspaper written by kids in Taiwan, called the Taipei Teen Tribune.
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*This article was written by a guest author. It has not been vetted or endorsed by Bored Teachers' editorial staff.*
One of the most important yet most difficult activities to pull off in class is discussing politics. It’s impossible to avoid - students are curious, politics are pervasive in our society, and they have a tangible effect on education and your classrooms. Still, many amazing teachers have found that opening the politics floodgates can be dangerous; students can get aggressive, issues are emotionally charged, and insults can be thrown. Still, if you know how to lead this kind of discussion, there are few opportunities that are better for teaching critical thinking, leading with heads instead of hearts, and how to respect those who think differently. Here are five tips to help your class talk politics.
1. Set boundaries
The most important step before anyone says a thing about politics is to make sure all students will approach the conversation respectfully. Public forums and discussion are only possible when everyone can learn to disagree without it turning ugly. Remind students that they will disagree with others, and that’s okay. Still, they shouldn’t be allowed to call another view “stupid” or treat anyone else’s perspective as less valid. This is part of why talking politics in class can be so useful - it’s a wonderful tool for teaching students the art of dispassionate discourse. Ask them to keep emotions out of it, and to be willing to reconsider their views.
2. Don’t take perspectives for granted
You may live in the reddest or bluest county in America, so you might be tempted to take it for granted that students (and their parents) will agree with your commonly-held views. Don’t fall for that. Even the most Democratic areas have a few staunch Republicans, and vice versa, and one of the worst things you can do as an educator is make a student feel like their opinions are so out of touch with their peers that it’s not even worth considering. If you do talk politics, be fair to all views, and even attempt to play the devil’s advocate, even if you agree with students.
3. Get as many students involved as possible
In every class there are some students who are inclined to speaking up and being heard, and others who are less than enthusiastic about the prospect. This is even more true when talking politics. Some students may feel like their views aren’t popular with the larger group, and may be afraid to reveal them. Try to get all students to participate and engage. Don’t push anyone, and be willing to take “I don’t know” as a valid answer. But don’t neglect anyone either - you may be surprised by students and what they have to offer in a politically-charged conversation.
4. Stick to facts as much as you can
The fact of the matter is, you probably have political perspectives. Most teachers do. Still, as an educator it is your job to keep emotionally charged and heated language out of your lessons. This is true of political discussions as well. You need to be a leader and show your class what dispassionate discourse looks like, and you must also be a model for responsible treatment of other views. To do this, generally try to keep your feelings about politics toned down, and be the arbiter of facts and good information. This isn’t to say never let your bias show or never explain your views (because yours are probably good ones), but make sure they are grounded and reasonable, not charged with emotion.
5. Remind students they can disagree
Most important, and something every strong teacher explains to their class, is that students are allowed to disagree. One of my favorite events is when a student does disagree with me, and then has the mettle to explain why. There are few better exercises in both self-confidence and critical thinking than getting students to intellectually disagree with an authority figure like a teacher. So, even if you do happen to show a little bias, or students disagree with each other, your class will know that their views are still valid and still worth defending.
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