Why We Need to Invite Politics into Classrooms
By Kent Lenci
About four years ago, having taught middle school history for two decades, I left the classroom and started working with teachers to help today’s students face tomorrow’s political polarization.
One of my first gigs was to deliver a half-day workshop on the First Amendment for a group of seventh graders at a school whose administrators, as the date drew near, began to fret. It was the Trump flag that did it.
My plan was to ask students a central question (To what extent should a school allow controversial political speech?), provide pertinent background on the Constitution, and share the real-life scenario of a school that had been flummoxed by the appearance of a Trump flag.
It was that last bit that got people jittery, prompting one school leader to gently suggest via email that he would be “cautious about incorporating any specific political figures into student-led discussions.” In other words, Please, man, we’ve got enough troubles. The bus driver slept late, and half the fourth grade has lice. Could you throw us a bone here and not bring up Trump?
And that’s the thing, isn’t it?
Educating is hard enough, and it would be so much easier to avoid contentious political topics that could elicit unpredictable reactions from students. Nonetheless, we do those students a disservice in taking the path of least resistance.
Not only do kids sharpen their critical-thinking skills when faced with contentious topics, but they develop the capacity and desire to engage with people across lines of disagreement. This inclination – to reach across divides – will be invaluable as tomorrow’s leaders work to solve the seemingly intractable problems that we pass on to them.
So yes, it is daunting to invite politics – which I consider to be the stuff that society deems important or worth debating – into the classroom. But when we do, appealing opportunities present themselves.
Reaching conversation agreements
One of these opportunities is the chance to teach children how to engage in dialogue across lines of disagreement. This starts with establishing guardrails to contain conversations.
I used to stick up a poster with conversation guidelines that, like outdated wallpaper, blended into the background of my classroom. Eventually, though, I centered on those previously dusty guidelines, and I discovered that thoughtful class norms, frequently invoked, were absolutely essential to productive dialogue.
Like most things, when students have a hand in shaping such norms of engagement, they will be more durable. Both Facing History and Ourselves and the “Let’s Talk” guide from Learning for Justice (see page 23) offer guidance for middle school teachers looking to go that route. Critically, though, even as we invite student input, we should be sure to add our two cents.
I find it useful to name for students that we aim for curiosity in our conversations, rather than victory, which, for many kids, requires a substantial shift in mindset. In the words of the Better Arguments Project: “Take winning off the table.” It’s also powerful to establish that earnest listening does not necessarily indicate agreement. As Simon Greer, founder of Bridging the Gap, puts it, we “believe we are enhanced by proximity to points of view we disagree with.”
Any classroom agreement will inevitably feature the word “listen,” which presents another opportunity: to teach kids how to do it. In my experience, there is a wide disconnect between our stated emphasis on listening and our lackluster instruction of it.
While researching my book, Learning to Depolarize, I found that listening essentially consists of three elements:
- nonverbal attending (such as a nod of the head),
- reflecting (which includes paraphrasing), and
- asking open-ended questions.
Listening is an active sport. We must teach students how to play the sport, and then we should assess their progress in that domain; let’s measure them not just on how often and eloquently they speak but on how skillfully they listen.
Media literacy is sure to come up
Beyond sharpening classroom rules of engagement, when we invite the political into our classrooms, we find other opportunities. Very quickly, for instance, we discover the urgency of media literacy.
Teachers are deathly afraid of introducing contentious topics that might elicit an ignorant comment. In fact, though, when we do unearth such sentiments, it gives us a chance to dig for their origins.
We ask questions like: What information led you to that belief? To what extent are you influenced by those for whom you feel some personal admiration (such as social media influencers in the mold of Andrew Tate), versus those who earn other forms of credibility? (See Courageous RI, featuring media literacy expert Renee Hobbes, for more on the topic of influence.)
There are obvious opportunities to examine the biases of news sources (see this detailed 2023 media bias chart), and we should help students realize that media from both sides of the political aisle present politics as a zero-sum game of win or lose. To expose this reality for students is to help them understand their own inclination to instinctively seek to “win” a political “argument.”
Many esteemed organizations provide guidance for media literacy education; try the Media Education Lab for five key questions to guide the examination of any media, including political news coverage.
Incorporating social emotional learning
Finally, when we get into politics at school, we have a golden opportunity – I might even say a mandate – to incorporate social emotional learning. Many of us applaud SEL while struggling to weave it into our daily teaching. Here’s our chance: give the kids something provocative to discuss.
We might assume that rational, reasoned thinking drives dialogue around contentious topics. In fact, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, emotion is central to our thinking, and when we feel threatened by the political “other,” automatic thinking processes take the wheel.
We owe it to our kids to help them learn to self-regulate in the face of a perceived threat, to develop the reflective tendencies that will allow them to press more deeply into thorny discussions; otherwise, the automatic fight-or-flight mechanism will derail our best-laid plans to foster civil discourse.
This goes for adults, as well. In some of my workshops, I have asked teachers to consider the same scenario – about the Trump flag in school – that I presented at my First Amendment workshop, and several have told me that were they to find themselves facing what felt like a provocative symbol in their classroom they would probably freeze.
Indeed. This is how we humans are built – to fight, flee, or freeze. If we are to ask our students to engage in productive dialogue across lines of disagreement, we must first, as they say, put on our own oxygen masks; sometimes a deep breath does wonders.
Helping students build skills for the future
So. How did it go with the First Amendment workshop and the Trump flag and the worried administrators? Did I water down the day? Did I redact references to President Trump and substitute a nameless “leader?” I did not, and the day went smoothly.
But they don’t always. Sometimes in my workshops and in our classes there are (and there will continue to be) messy situations that feel untidy and uncomfortable. But our assessment of whether things are going well cannot be whether, at the end of a particular class, we merely have the sense that it was a “good conversation.”
What matters is that years from now our students are able to engage meaningfully with people who see the world very differently so that they can solve or at least make progress on the most pressing and divisive dilemmas facing them. This will only happen if we give them the experiences – including discussing contentious issues with people who may hold dissimilar views and whose comments and reactions could trigger negative emotions – they’ll need for the job.
Kent Lenci is the author of Learning To Depolarize: Helping Students and Teachers Reach Across Lines of Disagreement (Routledge, 2023). Kent has taught history and social studies, coached, and occupied several leadership positions at the middle school level over the past twenty years.
Kent is a recipient of various honors, including the Margot Stern Strom Teaching Award from Facing History and Ourselves and the NAIS Teacher of the Future designation. He earned his Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard University. Learn more about Kent’s current consulting work by visiting his website Middle Ground School Solutions.