School is back in session and students have plenty of news to talk about from the momentous events over summer break. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, the Confederate flag came down in South Carolina, and the United States and Iran signed a historic nuclear deal. How can you tackle such touchy subjects without offending anyone’s beliefs or dragging your own opinions or biases into classroom discussions? NPR interviewed University of Wisconsin faculty members Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy about their new book, “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” which details their study of teachers in 35 schools over a four-year-period. Here are excerpts from the interview, highlighting what they learned about how teachers can navigate our nation’s thorny politics:
Framing the debate
“..it’s really important to make sure you have issues for which there are multiple and competing views, and you don’t give students the impression that there’s a political view that they should be working toward.”
On opting out of tough discussions
“Opting out because I feel uncomfortable sharing my views or talking out loud in class is a skill that can be taught and overcome. Opting out because this discussion is really hard for me given my religious background — that might be a reason that you let a student pass on a discussion.”
Tackling breaking news events
“Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history. It’s difficult to have those materials at the ready when things sort of erupt as they have in the last year or so with Baltimore and Ferguson. Good teachers start building curriculum about the history of redlining in cities or how cities become segregated.”
“Settled issues” and “Open” issues
“There are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people. The question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, What to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.”
Personal beliefs in the classroom?
“…there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.
The practice that we found most troubling, from the study, is what we referred to in the book as political seepage: teachers who make sarcastic comments, who use partisan humor. It’s these offhanded comments that are sort of biting and mean-spirited about the political climate…”
While politics in the classroom can be tough, we recommend teachers (especially for older grades) not steer clear of controversial topics because they can really engage students. Check out some of our political Text Sets below for a selection of topics to spark discussion:
We also want to hear from you. What advice do you have on teaching thorny issues? Tweet us @Newsela and let us know.