Three Core Principles For Teaching With Politics


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Ask anyone who teachers argument – teachers of AP Language, of Political Science, of US History and Contemporary World Issues – and they’ll tell you that election years are absolutely awesome for teaching. Why? Because they are brimming with content that’s engaging, that’s immediately relevant to students’ lives (i.e. the kind of authenticity we continuously strive to achieve in inauthentic lessons), and that’s refreshed on a daily- (sometimes hourly-) basis.

The implications for teaching are pretty powerful. Students are far more likely to thoughtfully read, analyze, discuss, and write about texts that they’re genuinely interested in, and media rich political campaigns can provide precisely that.

Consider the resources that are presently at your fingertips. In seconds, you can search Google for transcripts of political speeches that were expertly crafted by teams of master rhetoricians… and you can find HD video footage of those speeches being delivered on YouTube… and those speeches are about authentic issues that matter to your students… AND, tomorrow, there will be newer, more compelling iterations of that material!

But if you’re reading this, this isn’t news to you. In fact, you’re more likely the teacher in the opening line who is being asked rather than the one doing the asking. You already know that the world is a highly politicized place, and that classrooms are microcosms of the world. You already know failing to expose students to the stuff of modern politics does them far more harm than good. And so the question does not become whether or why, but rather, how.

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The best practices associated with integrating politics into the classroom revolve around several core principles that may seem like common sense, but that are far too easy to lose sight of. What’s worse, losing sight of these principles can have serious repercussions – in the way of your ethics as an educator and an influencer, and also in the way of your professional well-being. (The 2007 case of Deborah Mayer v. the Monroe County School District comes to mind, in which a federal court ruled that the teacher was justly fired for distributing an anti-war Time magazine article to her students because it deviated from the school’s curriculum.)

As you continue to seek out and/or develop materials to engage your students in the awesome “stuff” of modern politics, be sure to keep the following principles in mind.

PoliticsBanner3 The question of whether teachers should share their views regarding political issues (and controversial issues in general) has been widely discussed for years. Here, we’re going to use a three-prong approach to unpack it: legal, research, and practical.

The legal answer: Teachers typically have the same rights as students to display political messages on their attire, as long as they don’t disrupt the learning environment. (This harkens back to the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines.) That being said, different schools, states, and cultural contexts are likely to interpret this notion with varying degrees of flexibility.

But wearing a political pin on the strap of your messenger bag is one thing… and verbalizing that viewpoint is another. In short, if you feel comfortable sharing your view, and you do so in an antiseptic fashion, you’re in the clear. But, if your “sharing” is accompanied by a dose of influencing, persuading, or “pushing,” you’ve overstepped your bounds.

The research-based answer: Effective teachers exist in both camps. Sharing one’s own political views often comes down to personal preference – but context (i.e. why those views are being shared) and delivery (i.e. how they’re shared – as informal conversation, as a disclosure of bias, as an aggressive campaign to convert students you your thinking – eeek!) are of paramount importance.

The practical answer: You can share your personal views with your students if you’re comfortable with it, but never push an agenda. Your students won’t like it, but more importantly, it’s unethical.

PoliticsBanner4 The 2007 case of Deborah Mayer v. the Monroe County School District that was mentioned earlier (in which Mayer was fired for bringing an anti-war article into class) emphasizes the importance of relevance.

Mayer was not let go because she broached a controversial issue with students. Rather, the court ruled in favor of the district because Mayer had deviated from the curriculum.

So, if you’re teaching a political science class, or a unit devoted strictly to rhetoric (AP Lang teachers, I’m looking at you!), you’re in the clear. If, on the other hand, you’re teaching Biology … well, not so much.

Be sure that the connections between the curriculum and any outside content you bring in are clear, and that these materials are permissible as per curricular documents. (A simple line in the curriculum, such as “…and supplemental nonfiction texts as per teacher’s professional discretion,” goes a long, long way!)

PoliticsBanner5 Diana Hess has written a lot about teaching with politics and other controversial issues, and one of the most compelling frameworks I recall from her work is a four-point spectrum of teacher-attitudes regarding this kind of “hot button” content.

In summary, the four attitudes were “denial” (i.e. “People think that gay marriage is controversial, but it’s not – there’s an obvious correct answer, and that’s the answer that I’m going to teach my kids!), “avoidance” (e.g. “Oh jeez, I don’t want to talk about gay marriage in my class – it’s way too controversial”), “privilege” (e.g. “Yeah, gay marriage is controversial, but I think there’s a clear answer so that’s where I’ll focus my instruction”), and the all-important “balance.”

Hess describes “balance” as acknowledging that an issue is controversial (rather than ignoring that fact), and then striving to do your best to provide “balanced,” unbiased, and ethically sound instruction.

Let’s analogize this, shall we? Teaching with controversial issues and political texts is akin to carrying a box of fragile crystal glasses. As long as you acknowledge that you’re carrying delicate glass, you’ll be fine. But if you ignore that fact – if you toss it around haphazardly, or spike it to the floor, or smash it on someone else’s head… well, that’s going to be a problem. So, instead, handle with care.

PoliticsBanner6 Here are the takeaways:

  • “Balanced” instruction often begins with a disclaimer in which you let students know that the content you’re examining is controversial in some capacity, and that it must be treated as such – with respect.
  • If you’re comfortable sharing your views, feel free – but don’t push your agenda on your students. That’s a big no-no.
  • Ensure that the content you bring in has a clear, undisputable connection to the curriculum. (This is typically much easier for English and Social Studies than STEM folk… and with good reason. If the curricular connection isn’t clear, then why on earth would you want to teach it?)

If you’re looking for awesome resources to bring engage your students with modern politics, definitely check out Teaching Argument With Political Campaigns, Teach Argument With Obama’s Correspondents’ Dinner Speech, and Spousal Politics: Teaching Argument Michelle, Melania, and Bill!

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