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How Should Teachers Address Politics in the Classroom?

Post by guest blogger Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Last week, 17 Republican presidential candidate hopefuls took to the stage in Cleveland to debate everything from same-sex marriage to the role of the military to, briefly, the Common Core State Standards and education policy

As the 2016 election season kicks into gear, teachers have to debate with themselves about whether and how to address complicated topical subjects in their classrooms -- as well as whether and how to share their personal views with students. 

NPR's Steve Drummond probes the role of politics in the classroom in a conversation with Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, the authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. Hess is the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's education school, and McAvoy heads the school's Center for Ethics and Education. Their book includes guidelines for teachers based on a study the authors conducted between 2005 and 2009.

In the study, some teachers shared their views with students and others chose not to. McAvoy said that the success of conversations about tricky political issues hinged less on whether a teacher's view was known than on whether teachers created a "culture of fairness" in their classrooms. She explained to NPR:

That means being fair and reasonable to all the competing views that are in the classroom and that are being represented in the public. 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.

Students pick up on that culture, according to the authors. Their research indicated that students distinguished between a teacher who shared her or his point of view and a teacher who seemed to be "pushing" that perspective.

McAvoy and Hess say that when teachers introduce political subjects and current events, they are also teaching students how to deliberate on such subjects and have productive conversations with peers. The classroom can also be a space for students to put current events in context.

Such topics are often engaging for students. But they're fraught, too, not least due to parents' and community members' mixed feelings about teachers' roles and about how aware and involved young people should be in political debates. (Of course, sometimes students take matters into their own hands.)

The whole conversation is worth reading. It touches on whether students should be able to opt out of certain conversations, how teachers can respond when conversations turn less-than-civil, and whether these conversations are harder to have in more diverse classrooms—all critical questions for teachers hoping to navigate the waters of politics and contentious current events thoughtfully. 

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