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Teaching the Art of Conversation During a Divisive Election Year

4-ElectionLessons-Campaign-Signs-Students-blog (1).jpgIt's often tough for teachers to figure out how to talk about political issues or current events in class. During a divisive election year, it's even more difficult. 

The news site AllSides.com and the nonprofit Living Room Conversations recently released a set of lessons aimed at helping teachers navigate those conversations as part of a program called AllSides for Schools. It's called "Elections and Relationships," and the goal is to teach young people in grades 8-12 how to examine controversial topics from all sides and discuss them civilly, even when they disagree.  

The heads of the organizations that created "Elections and Relationships" point out that their partnership models the kind of discourse they'd like to see in classrooms. John Gable, the founder of AllSides.com, and Joan Blades, Living Room Conversations' founder, have different political views—Blades identifies as a progressive, while Gable is more conservative. 

But both were focused on what they saw as a significant problem in society: The lack of conversation and understanding among people with different points of view.

"What we learned is that you need both," Gable said. "If you don't hear the other point of view, you can't really go anywhere. And if you don't understand the other person as a human being, you won't listen to them and respect them."  

Gable said teachers began using AllSides.com to identify bias in news coverage before the company began developing a specific program for schools. 

AllSides.com's focus is on presenting unbiased information and illuminating bias in media. Living Room Conversations focuses on building relationships as a foundation for productive debate. 

The program starts with a lesson called "Relationships Matter," focused on respecting others even when you disagree. Students ask each other questions about their backgrounds and share experiences about being in contentious conversations. It also includes a series of lessons about specific topics like trade and economic inequality, which are paired with materials from the Christian Science Monitor and links to articles that present issues from different points of view.  

As the school year gets into swing and the November elections draw near, many organizations have developed programs to help teachers teach about the election: C-SPAN, iCivics, and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program are among the offerings. (This Education Week story includes more on teaching about the 2016 election.) Still, a survey from Teaching Tolerance earlier this year found that some 40 percent of teachers were reluctant to teach about the election

Photo: Students in a 9th grade U.S. government class at Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minn., work amid past campaign posters. Ackerman + Gruber for Education Week.

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