Thursday, July 28, 2016

Teaching in a Heated Political Climate

In May, 2016, as I walked around my classroom to listen to the discourse among my students and provide inspiration, clarification, and feedback where necessary, one of my students caught me off guard by asking perhaps the scariest question a teacher can hear: “Can I ask you a personal question?”
As a proponent of a strong, safe classroom community, I share a good portion of my personal story with my students so that they feel empowered and safe to share theirs, but I always reserve the right to know when not to share. There are some areas of our lives that are sacred and not up for discussion with students. As such, I responded that she might ask, but I had the right not to answer. I always smile when I say this because, generally, the questions are innocuous, and I end up answering anyway.
But not this time.
“Who are you voting for for president?”
Without hesitation, I answered with one of my mantras: “It is my job to teach you how to think – not what to think.”
My students know that I want them to analyze rhetoric, obtain news from multiple and varied sources, and most importantly to know why they think what they think. I want them to understand media and political biases and also to understand their own. I want them to realize when they are being manipulated (because face it, we’re always being manipulated on some level) and if they’re voting for party X because their parents are or if it’s because candidate X aligns with their own values. This belief is so integrated in my classroom that I challenge students to disagree with me if anything I say doesn’t correlate with their beliefs. All I ask of my students is that they can back up what they claim with evidence and critical analysis. Basically, I want them not only to use text evidence in their writing but also in their lives.
As I walked away, I heard mumbling about how my response “wasn’t a real answer” and that if [the student] was a teacher, she “would just answer the question.” Here’s the thing about setting up a classroom in which you truly value students’ questions and opinions: you have to be ready to engage in discussions in which they might disagree with you or with each other, and you have to be ready to model how to civilly disagree. So instead of acting like I didn’t hear the comment (when will they learn that I hear everything?), I walked back to the student and asked her why she was frustrated with my response.
She didn’t understand why it was a “big deal” simply to state who I would vote for, but I disagree. At best, we would have the same political opinions, and we could join together against all of those “others” of the opposing political parties. But that’s actually the “at worst” scenario, too. To align myself with one side would mean to alienate students who disagree and to create a divisive atmosphere in my classroom. I perceive my role as one of facilitator, as mediator, and quite often as devil’s advocate as a means for evoking thoughtful dialogue, debate, and quest for mutual respect and understanding. How can I satisfy any of those roles if I am working toward a specific political agenda? How many parents want their kids’ teachers telling them which candidate they should vote for?
In 2013, one very astute, politically-minded student stated that my approach to free-thinking already represented a specific political agenda, and maybe he had a point, but until a political party comes forward to admit that it’s against fact-checking, critical thinking, listening to compelling arguments from the other side, and analyzing rhetoric, I will continue to be as non-biased as I can be as my students form their own sets of morals and values.
              I know that I do hope to shape those core values to some degree; I cannot deny this. I choose literary pieces that reflect human struggles stemming from a wide range of issues: social class, race, gender, war, etc., and one of my primary goals is to encourage empathy for others. I aim to teach students to be the best readers, writers, and thinkers that they can be. As teachers of the humanities, I believe that many of us share similar goals. However, I also believe that we should not use our positions to assert specific political ideologies. If we empower our students to think critically, we must trust that they will go out there, apply what they’ve learned, and become informed voters and citizens. If we do our jobs well, they won't need anyone to tell them what to think or who to vote for.

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