Teaching this election won’t be easy

Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump renewed his pledge to build a wall at the Mexican border, deport 11 million illegal immigrants and suspend immigration from countries like Libya and Syria.

In our public school classrooms, we have students who would be deported — or at the very least harassed about their immigration status — if he is elected.

We also have students who embrace Trump’s views and rhetoric.

That sounds like a fight waiting to happen.

So here is our challenge: How do we make our classrooms safe spaces for all of these students’ divergent views and life experiences?

2016 is not — as some have claimed — the most divisive moment in American history. But it is the most divisive political season since I started teaching social studies 20 years ago, perhaps even since the Vietnam War.

In the ’60s, many teachers and schools responded by simply clamping down and forbidding students to talk about the war or protest movement. The Tinker v. Des Moines case, which ultimately assured protection for most student speech, started with exactly that — school officials denying students the ability to wage even a silent anti-war protest, arguing it would “disrupt” the school environment.

We can look back now and laugh at the absurdity of that argument. What is education about, if not engaging students’ minds in thinking about the important issues around them?

But it’s easier to sympathize with those administrators when you think about the prospect of students debating Trump’s immigration proposal in class today. Teachers who want to engage their students in critical thinking about American politics have their work cut out for them.

Can a student whose parents crossed the border illegally really talk calmly, face to face, with a classmate who favors deportation?

Still, we can’t duck from this challenge or act like our predecessors. We must be courageous enough to engage our students in these discussions — and thoughtful enough to construct them in a way that respects all views and doesn’t cause harm.

Outside of our school walls, Americans seem to have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse. Voters on both sides of the spectrum listen to talk radio that supports their views, share social media posts with friends who agree with them, and isolate themselves from other voices and opinions.

Inside of school, we must teach these civic skills. We need to create places in our high schools where soon-to-be voters can not only talk with those who are different from them, but listen to them as well. If we are successful, maybe tomorrow’s voters will be more willing to entertain diverse opinions than we are now.

How can we do it?

We need to start this fall by laying clear, consistent ground rules for class discussions. Everyone counts; everyone participates; everyone listens respectfully. We need to teach some quiet students how to speak up, and teach the dominating voices how to listen.

We need to keep our views out of the discussion and play devil’s advocate when necessary, especially when either side is outnumbered or intimidated.

We need to remember that students — even the most strident ones — are still forming their political beliefs. We need to assume the best about their intentions and not try to “correct’ them.

If this all sounds too complicated, it doesn’t have to be. I’ll be posting a free election lesson here later this month. If you have ideas or resources, please share them as well.

We can turn this election season into an incredible teachable moment, and if we do so, we can impact the conversation for years to come.

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