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Social-Emotional Learning: What Students Can Learn From Congressmen's Road Trip

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Two Texas congressmen from opposing political parties created an internet sensation—and maybe a tool for integrating social-emotional learning into classroom discussions—when their flights to Washington were cancelled due to snow this week, forcing them on an impromptu cross-country road trip to make it to the Capitol in time for votes Wednesday evening.

U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke (D) and Will Hurd (R), livestreamed their journey on Facebook, getting up to 7,000 viewers along the way. They timed each other's restroom stops, sang along with song requests, and talked about a range of issues that typically stir contention between political parties—including how Congress should respond to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, health care, and the opioid epidemic.

Their trip, and the videos they made, might serve as useful real world examples for civics and government classes, particularly for teachers who are interested in integrating social-emotional learning into their classroom work.

While some members of Congress have been criticized for ducking town halls out of fear of discussing these divisive issues publicly, Hurd and O'Rourke discussed them for hours, taking questions live in the Facebook comments and conferencing in more than a dozen congressional colleagues, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-Washington. They patiently repeated each other's viewpoints, at times stopping to outline their areas of disagreement and to find the overlapping areas in their viewpoints.

"Even if we do disagree, we don't have to be disagreeable," Hurd said.

Here are some things that might make interesting topics of classroom conversation.

It's possible to have a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with you.

Students, like me, are probably used to watching an aunt or uncle have unconstructive arguments with other family members on Facebook. But the impulse to quickly drop an inflammatory meme or an ad hominem attack in the comments section and run away just doesn't work when you're spending 30 hours in a confined space with the political opposition.

What are some skills Hurd and O'Rourke demonstrated in their conversation? How did they manage to disagree while still being clear about their viewpoints? How might a student respond in a similar situation? Are there ways speakers can ask questions or challenge opinions that will make others feel less defensive?

How do our personal experiences affect our opinions?

During a conversation about congressional investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Hurd, himself a former intelligence official, said he was concerned that discussions about the issue had led to disparagement of the intelligence community. Intelligence agencies cannot share much of the information they receive with the public, he said, and their employees often make great sacrifices.

What are your students' views on some current events? How have they been shaped by their own experiences and backgrounds? How might someone with a different personal experience think about the same subject?

Adults don't have it all figured out.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the two men's road trip was just how much attention it got, including coverage from outlets like NPR and ABC. Callers and viewers just couldn't believe that people who sit on two different sides of the political aisle could share a car for two days, let alone share their experience with the internet. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even chimed in, calling the livestream a great example of civic engagement.

Why is this so surprising? Why does it seem so rare? How can students work to show positive skills—like self-management and social awareness—even if adults sometimes fall short? What are some ways people can work intentionally to understand people they disagree with?

Near the end of their trip, Hurd and O'Rourke took suggestions from viewers about what Democrat/Republican duo should take the next road trip. One of the first suggestions? The outspoken pair of Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.

The livestream was spread out over several videos. You can view some of them here, here, and here.

Or here's a video the Washington Post compiled.


Related reading on social-emotional learning and civics:

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