How Do We Teach Politics in a Society Where Political Affiliations Have Become Toxic?

How Do We Teach Politics in a Society Where Political Affiliations Have Become Toxic?

Nick Zolkiwsky

Throughout my time as a student from kindergarten up until the eighth grade, politics and government were never taught in my classes. To which I was not at all surprised, after all how do you teach a second grader the difference between a conservative and a liberal when they should be learning how to construct paragraphs and learn how to use a keyboard? Let alone how do you get them interested in such a topic? Even more importantly, how do we get them interested in the topic and teach them to respect others who may hold different political views?

The first time I can vividly recall politics being taught in my class was when I was in fourth grade and we were fastly approaching the 2008 Presidential election. During those short and brief lessons, my teachers did not tell us where Senators McCain or Obama sided on certain issues or even a basic background of the parties they were affiliated with. Instead, we were all taught to like Obama because he was younger and was the more “favorable” candidate among teachers at my elementary school. The same situation occurred four years later when I was in eighth grade and the 2012 election was approaching. To which I was genuinely surprised because at this point we were all teenagers and had a better understanding of how the world works compared to when we were still in grade school, at least I thought I did. However, it wasn’t until the 2016 election that my teachers actually began talking about the issues that Americans would be voting for and where Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood. While for the first time we were having open discussions about beliefs and the two major parties it was undoubtedly one of the most toxic environments one could have ever imagined. Instead of listening to each other oftentimes I would find classmates getting into heated arguments, which were then followed by one person attacking the personal character of the other. Even as a 17 year old I knew this was no way to hold political discussions. Where was the respect? Where were the listening skills? And most importantly, where was the maturity? The answer, nowhere to be found. So the question is, how do we, as teachers, teach and create a healthy environment where students can learn and discuss politics when we live in a society that becomes toxic when these discussions arise?

To say 2020 has been one of the most unpredictable years in recent memory would be an understatement. It’s been a 12 month period where every 30 days or so we are met with another apocalyptic type event: first it was wildfires, then a pandemic, then heightened racial issues, and to make it all the more fun we threw in a Presidential election into the mix. According to an article from “weareteachers.com” there are easy steps to teaching politics within the classroom in the current climate that we live in. The first step that the article suggests is to discuss biases and “fake news” within the American mainstream media. This is a perfect starting point as understanding biases will better help all students fully understand the concepts of politics and how different media outlets portray a candidate/policy than a rivaling network. This also opens up the door to teach students the importance of fact-checking and doing their own research, which in the past few years has become so much more important than ever. Unfortunately, due to the easy access to media and the increasing influence of social media, individuals will typically see a picture or a meme on Twitter or Instagram and assume it to be true. Not only will they outright believe it but they won’t even go through the effort of reading up on the issue or using that additional information to form their own opinion.

The next three steps that the article discusses are more so related to notifying parents that you are about to discuss politics within the class. As many social studies teachers know, politics is a very touchy subject to teach about, and as many teachers in general know, parents sometimes are not afraid to tell you how they really feel about you teaching a particular subject. What this step aims to do is to notify the parents before the lesson is taught and lay out for them how the subject will be delivered to the students. By doing so, not only will the parents be as caught up as their students are but, it better prepares them to answer those difficult questions that their children may ask at the dinner table or in some cases, provide clarification and context to when a student tells their parents what they did in school that day. In addition to notifying parents about the upcoming lessons on politics and how you intend on delivering the information, it is a good idea to also encourage parents to talk about politics with their students at home. This is done so not only will the students have a better understanding of what they are getting into and about to learn, but it will also help them start to relate to certain focal points and issues that personally matter to them and their family.

Lastly, once the day has arrived to start teaching about politics in your classroom there are a few ground rules that you should establish right off the bat. The first rule, and quite possibly the most important rule, is to ensure that your students will show respect and remain respectful during the lesson. The way I like to think of it is, respectful ears are ears that are open to hearing the voices of others without judgment. The next rule is more geared towards you as the teacher and that is to remain neutral on the subject matter. While it is oftentimes difficult to remain neutral on certain topics, you have to understand that some of your students might have little to no understanding of the issues that you are about to discuss. Rather than giving them a biased opinion, which they have learned about at this point, you are giving them a non-partisan view and allowing them to make their own opinions on the topic. The third and final rule is to make sure that the students know that their opinions are their own opinions and they have the right to have them. This can be very empowering for students, especially those in High School who now find themselves in the “young adult” category. By having their own free-formed opinions this helps them establish a sense of identity as to who they are and where their morals lie and if you think about it you’re killing two birds with one stone.

How you want to present the information is totally up to you, just as long as you feel that you can provide the necessary information and that the information provided will be retained by the students in the classroom. Some suggest that PowerPoints and lectures may be the best option because this allows students to ask questions throughout the lesson and does provide room for a short class discussion. The more you allow students to voice their opinions and ask questions shows that they are engaging in the topic and that they are getting curious about why things are the way that they are. Other ways could include holding a mini-election within your own classroom, however, this activity may take a few class periods to run its full course, but on the flip side is it keeps them engaged longer and it allows them to go home after class and do their own research to further their own side of the topic. The last way you could do it is a much more laissez-faire approach and that is an open class discussion where you go around and have students speak up on what they know about politics. In doing so, the students are teaching one another and it gives you the teacher the opportunity to expand on talking points, correct any misconceptions brought up and even guide them to areas of further discussion. However, the one drawback that this approach comes with is that you will have biased opinions from students, so be sure to neutralize any bias that could be presented and most importantly, if a student holds similar views as you do, do not promote those as the “correct” way of thinking. 

In conclusion, it is safe to say that we live in a time like no other. Our political climate in our nation today has never been as divisive as it has been over the past few years. But we as educators and even future parents must realize that if we want to change the toxic climate that is our political spheres, then we must lead the charge. Show our students it’s okay to disagree with others and that you can still be friends just because one person voted for one candidate and the other voted for the opposite candidate. The sooner we implement respect in our classrooms and when discussing politics with younger generations the more likely they will pass those traits down to their children.

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