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How to Teach When the Political Is Personal

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This post is by Sarah Boddy, an EL Education school coach. 

The transition marked by the recent inauguration is different than any teachers and students have experienced before. It has left many with urgent questions about what our democracy will look like in the coming years. And still, every day, kids show up at school. Teachers are there, creating the mini moral worlds their students live in for hours every day. Intuitively, teachers operate from a sense of what kind of adults they hope kids will become.

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At EL Education, we believe that this is best done consciously and intentionally. We are unafraid to say that teachers and schools shape student character. We specify what we believe they should work towards: students who are not just effective learners, but also ethical people, and active contributors to a better world. We believe that this is supported when educators elevate student voice and leadership and model a schoolwide culture of respect, compassion, honesty, integrity, and kindness. In times of crisis, small-scale or large, this also means modeling courage in standing up for those values, and standing against racism, injustice, acts of hate, and the undermining of public education.

In this transition, students are at the very least aware that many adults in their world are experiencing more fear, anger, and confusion than is typical. Students may themselves be experiencing a changed and charged atmosphere in school, and may be terrified about implications for their family's legal status, health care, and personal safety. So, as adults determined to be conscious and intentional in our practice: what are we doing right now, and why are we doing it?

One unheralded but powerful possibility is this: giving students real material to engage with and supporting them to do work that matters to them. This is what helps students become ethical adults who contribute to a better world. In EL Education schools, this deeper learning is the daily fare of classrooms. And, it's what empowers them to engage in civil debate. If students are fearful about what may happen to them or their loved ones, we can help them research what has actually been said or proposed, and what is possible according to the U.S. Constitution as it has so far been interpreted. We can help them respond in ways that build their own agency: writing letters, like students at World of Inquiry, or making videos and organizing actions like the Melrose Leadership Academy Peace and Kindness March.

Likewise, the volume of source material that is available and hugely relevant to students' lives right now, at a wide range of reading levels, is breathtaking: from government intelligence reports about Russian hacking, to prepared testimony of potential Cabinet appointees (as well as recordings of question-and-answer portions of confirmation hearings), to tweets from the new President himself, to polls about the national mood. Larry Ferlazzo has even already compiled teaching resources on the women's march.

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The country is awash in think pieces and analysis--often excellent, and always written by a human, which entails "written from particular perspective," whether that's explicit or not. Teachers of all political leanings are understandably wary of presenting these modern texts with an explicit or implicit point of view, lest that point of view be taken as encouraging a partisan stance to students. However, the examples listed above aren't analyses yet; they are artifacts.

Giving students real-world artifacts and teaching them how to analyze them can be daunting. Many teachers shy away because they worry students' own analyses will lead to classroom arguments or greater anxiety. But if what students may do with and about what they learn from performing their own analyses frightens us so much that we avoid the artifacts altogether, what are we modeling? What kind of adults are we shaping?

Maybe you, reader, are objecting to my proposal already: "I don't think we should be political." You're right that it is good to avoid over-determining students' views through authoritative influence, or marginalizing students who have different views from the teacher and/or influential students. I wonder, though, whether this evades the reality that different people can look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions, or disagree about whether they are facts at all. If this leads us to exclude topics because they are political, then this is an equally political act. Choosing exclusion (of topics, or information, or people) is as much of a political choice as choosing inclusion.

I recently heard a teacher say "let's not get political" in response to a colleague who suggested that to teach third graders about the need for clean water, they could use the crisis in Flint, Michigan as an example. To be clear, the teacher hadn't suggested they teach the third graders that the governor was a scoundrel to have allowed it, or that poor people's access to safe water should properly come second to a local government's attempts to cut costs. The suggesting teacher responded with a calm question: "What is political about people needing water, and not having it?" It's an illuminating question, as the answer forces an acknowledgement: If we grant that in our country, access to clean and safe water (or healthcare, or food, or public education, or the right to vote, and on and on) has become politicized, we must grant that whatever decision we make about sharing it with our students is a political decision. Choosing to include Flint, or choosing to exclude it, are both political, and personal, decisions.

So we return to "what are we doing, and why are we doing it?" And perhaps more urgently, for those of us who are afraid, angry, and confused, "what can we do?" We can tell our students they matter, not just to us personally but as members of a society. We can show them we mean it by giving them chances to create work that both responds to and acts upon that society. We can walk side by side with our students as we all process this political transition together. We can show them, and they can show us, what kind of adults to be: what it looks like in 2017 to be an ethical person, contributing to a better world. 

Photos by David Grant.

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