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3 ways to navigate American politics in the classroom

If you foster a secure environment, students will feel safe to share their opinions

In our current social climate, it can be tricky for anyone, especially a teenager, to talk about politics and the role of government. But as educators, it’s our job to explain the varying viewpoints that make up our political discourse. It’s also our job to foster an open, secure environment in which students feel safe to share their own opinions.

As an online instructor at a statewide public school, I’ve taught U.S. government and politics during two contentious election cycles. And although I live in California, a left-leaning state, I teach students from across the state whose core beliefs fall all along the political spectrum. From day one, I explain to students that respecting different viewpoints—even when you don’t agree—is part of building maturity. Here are three ways I build a culture of respect in my classroom.

1. Set guidelines
At the start of each session, I provide several rules for students about how we will discuss upcoming topics. Students must respect their classmates’ opinions and offer constructive criticism. I also remind them that I may revoke chat privileges if they do not adhere to these class rules.

It’s no secret that this generation’s students are comfortable with communicating via social media. Unfortunately, this means many of them view aggressive and confrontational comments as the norm. To help cut down on this kind of behavior, I teach them to present their beliefs using facts and appropriate word choice. This not only helps others understand different sides of an issue, it can also make students more cognizant of how their own rhetoric affects others in their day-to-day life.

2. Engage in dialogue, not debate
Some of my students come from very conservative households; others have extremely liberal beliefs. My lessons on demographics and political socialization help students understand how each of us develops our own belief systems. Through class discussions and assignments, students have the chance to reflect on life experiences that have shaped their political views—family of origin, media, religion, gender, and socioeconomics can all play a role.

Thinking about the things that have contributed to their own views provides students with some understanding about why different people come to different conclusions about the same issue. By the time we discuss an event in the news, they are ready to engage in dialogue, not debate. Debate creates a need to be “right” and perpetuates closed-minded thinking, while a dialogue allows for reflection on both sides of an issue.

3. Analyze the media
Finally, no course on government and politics would be complete without a look at the media and its role in shaping our belief systems. Teaching students about the value of freedom of the press as a watchdog of our government, yet also exploring the bias that exists among many media outlets, are both important factors when evaluating information from which we form our views. I encourage my students to evaluate three news sources and identify if any bias exists based on story placement, word choice, and what the outlet chooses to cover (or not cover).

It is definitely a challenging and exciting time to be teaching government and politics. Over the last decade, each group of students seems more engaged than the one before it. Giving future (and some current!) voters a platform to understand the structure of our government, ideas that steer various political beliefs, and the ability to share those ideas are vital parts of shaping our American democracy.

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