With Thanksgiving dinner debates just around the corner, many of us are apprehensive about political discussions around the table. We’ve all seen the spirited arguments that echo over stuffing and pie turn to anger and nastiness. While I may not be able to calm down your Uncle Joe, in my social studies and history class I teach my students that political discussions can indeed be civil.
I promote active citizenship in my classroom by facilitating challenging discussions about current events. Students become more aware of the world around them, thinking critically about the news they and their families are consuming. In order to engage in these conversations however, they first need to learn to exchange ideas in a meaningful way – one that does not involve demeaning each other.
Here are some of the ways that I help my students learn to be well-informed, respectful citizens through classroom discourse:
Empower Student Leaders
Students want the opportunity to lead. They want to take control and be in charge. Even those who may seem reticent to step up at first often grow into effective discussion leaders. By allowing students the opportunity to lead, the classroom becomes a supportive environment where opinions are certainly challenged, but also respected.
Every Friday, two or three students come to class prepared with a news topic to discuss. Beforehand, each student conducts their own research on the topic by gathering articles from liberal, moderate, and conservative sources. The students lead a five-minute presentation to explain the context of the event, compare the different articles, identify possible biases and opposing points of view, and finally give their own opinion. The presenting student then leads a 10 to 12-minute class discussion on the topic.
Configure the classroom for student-led discussions
All of the desks are arranged in a circle to enable a student-led Socratic style discussion. Student leaders facilitate the discussion and call on other students to speak. All students are expected to participate at least once by asking a question, commenting on the topic, or sharing an opinion. I jump in only to clarify details when necessary.
Start Early; Practice Often
My students begin building their discussion-leading skills within the first few months of school. We start the year discussing fake news and the political spectrum, which is where students learn to identify biases, including their own. We then analyze the front pages of different newspapers, critically reading the articles to detect media bias. As the discussions build, students get better at close reading and critical analysis. I rarely speak. Because I laid the foundation of skills and clearly set expectations over the first two months of school, I can now release the classroom to my students each Friday.
Teach Different Perspectives
A primary imperative of my class is to see events and issues from multiple perspectives—whether we’re discussing current events or the first 120 years of U.S. history. I told my students on the first day of class that I will often play the devil’s advocate, a style of interaction many had not previously encountered. Now they enjoy playing the role of devil’s advocate themselves and challenging each other. They are having discussions about tax reform, Russia, and North Korea—not just hearing but listening to each other, asking perceptive and penetrating questions about important changes in the world.
Some of these conversations can be extremely challenging, especially around controversial topics that may personally affect students’ lives. But they never cross the line of civility because we, as a class, set expectations and norms of respect.
The hardest conversations are the most important ones to have. We cannot back down from issues of race, gender, foreign relations, and the other hot-button issues that are considered powder kegs of political discussions. Presenting and discussing these topics on a weekly basis creates a safe environment where it is okay for students to take risks, share opinions, and learn to disagree respectfully.
Every day, my students prepare to become active citizens as they learn about the world around them. I hope that each and every one of them fully participates in their family’s spirited Thanksgiving dinner conversations – and that they are the ones who insist on civility.
Rebecca Lewis is a 2016 Connecticut Local Digital Innovator and a teacher in West Hartford, CT.
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