Heavy Topics, Strong Classrooms

Our democracy desperately needs diverse voices to engage in mature dialogue if we are to ever find compassionate solutions to our common problems. Schools must be where young people learn to do this.
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Last spring, I got a call from a student’s father. He was angry that we had forced his son to participate in a rally calling for action to curb global warming. Images of the rally appeared online and in the local papers. What if someone had seen his son’s face in those pictures?

The parent was concerned about bias and the imposition of an ideology other than his own. There are two sides to the climate change story, he asserted. As one of the school’s two principals, I affirmed his concerns and said I would look into it.

After talking to his son’s teacher, I learned that attending the demonstration was fieldwork for a documentary film class; permission forms had gone home and been signed. Students were learning about how to use their cameras, how to conduct interviews, how to capture live action. They were attending the march as documentarians, not to protest or affirm any one side of the story. I asked the teacher to call the student’s father and discuss this with him. She did, and it helped.

She and I talked further about how, in today’s political climate, more than the normal dose of preparation may be necessary when engaging with politically charged topics—and our schools must not shy away from the task.

The core purpose of public schools is to help young people become able contributors to our society, informed and critically thinking members of our democracy. Topics of potent political and personal relevance must be the stuff of the curriculum. Public schools are among the few public settings where the adults, by the very nature of our vocation, must have high expectations for evidence-based and respectful dialogue.

Feelings can get hurt. Students can feel that their values are being challenged—and perhaps they are. Teachers might be accused of bias or indoctrination. None of this risk is new, and our democracy desperately needs diverse voices to engage in mature dialogue if we are to ever find compassionate solutions to our common problems. Schools must be where young people learn to do this.

So, in a time of profound polarization and division, how can responsible educators safely situate teaching and learning in personal and political contexts, and embrace the plurality of identity in our society? Here are a few suggestions.


Plan lessons that value family histories.

Every student deserves to feel that their family, history and culture have worth. Early in the school year, teachers can establish trust with students and families by explicitly exploring and valuing elements of where each child comes from. For instance, lessons like this one from Teaching Tolerance invite students to explore the diverse religious heritage of the United States. And this TT lesson invites students to reflect on the values and traits of their cultural backgrounds.

The “Where I’m From” poems that I see on the walls of eighth-grade classrooms in my school are written in this spirit. I take pictures of those poems each year, focusing on specific words and phrases. I put them in slideshows for our assemblies and for the eighth-grade graduation, during which every graduate makes a “This I Believe” statement. Every student’s voice sounds in an auditorium packed with families: an affirmation that each child holds dear a belief that deserves to be heard.


Use discussion norms that de-personalize disagreement.

That we all have beliefs we hold dear is one thing that makes it hard to have discussions that challenge those beliefs. But even when our assumptions are challenged, no one should be personally attacked. With this in mind, a very simple discussion norm can help: Disagree with the idea, not the person.

A seventh-grade teacher I work with enforces this norm vigorously when hosting Socratic Seminars, prohibiting students from using their classmates’ names when disagreeing with an idea. These seminars are the culmination of a multi-week interdisciplinary unit about what makes a healthy community. Students draw from what they’ve learned in science class about ecological and biological systems, as well as personal experience—opioid addiction is a concern in our community. Content for the discussion also comes from social studies, where students study topics such as immigration, drug legalization and gun control.

When we open up the space for political debate and personal stories on such topics, a norm like the one my colleague uses helps keep students from feeling devalued by name, even when their ideas are being challenged.


Inform through engagement.

At a community forum that my co-principal and I held last year, a parent asked us to make a commitment to “no surprises.” This parent was referring to a lesson on sexual and reproductive health, but he was asking for a general commit to more fully inform families of what is going on in classes. I agreed. I don’t think that we should routinely give opt-out opportunities to kids and families, but we should ensure that families know the standards, research and rationale for the work in which we are engaging their children.

However, simply sharing information in a syllabus or a form letter only goes so far. It’s a one-way communication to which there’s not much room for meaningful response. Instead, we can find ways to engage families as a means of informing them. Even a very simple task can help ensure “no surprises” and allow voices from the home to become part of classroom conversation. I could imagine, for instance, a simple prompt given to students in the documentary film class prior going to the march: “Ask three adults in your life outside of school for their opinions on how climate change is covered in the media. What do they hear? What do they believe?” Homework thus becomes fieldwork, and families both participate in the work and gain an understanding of what students are studying.


Forge curricular partnerships.

A teacher working in concert with respected members of the broader community is in a much stronger position when controversial topics surface in the classroom. A school that values adults in the community will have adults in the community who value the school. A science teacher I know does a great job of this. I recall a mini-term course he taught on the topic of life in winter. Three generations of one local family came into school to share their traditions of sugar on snow, canned pickles and making donuts. I have pictures of the grandmother in the science lab plucking donuts from hot grease. I have another picture of one of the town’s snowplows in our parking lot, the driver having just given a tour of the truck. A student is grinning ear to ear in the front seat.

The middle school years at our school are rich with experiences like this. Simple as they may be, projects and assignments that help each family feel valued are essential. They build trust and lay a foundation that schools need when we do work that challenges assumptions and puts politics and identity on the table.  

I’m heartened that I got the call from the father about the climate rally. He didn’t choose to post his frustration online or silently resent what had happened. He called and confronted me with his concerns. I’m grateful for this, and I think the work my colleagues did with this student and family over the years helped shape this father’s willingness to talk. I hope encounters with difference will inspire more conversations with more students and families as we work together toward a more just world.

Hawkes is a co-principal at Randolph Union Middle/High School in Randolph, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter @ElijahHawkes.

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