Thomas Jefferson famously said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” An informed citizenry must be able to deeply comprehend information in all formats and engage in critical thought and well-reasoned civic decision-making.
Before the 2016 election, there were a number of comments on the distribution lists and blogs to which I subscribe related to educators maintaining an “apolitical” stance. In some classrooms and libraries across the country, educators downplayed local, state, and national campaigns in order to avoid confronting “political” issues in schools.
What are the unintended consequences when learners do not wrestle with the political life of our nation in the supportive environment of their classrooms and libraries? How can students and educators practice civil discourse and learn to listen to and share divergent perspectives if political issues are not discussed in schools?
While an individual school can be considered a system, each one is not a “closed” system. All public schools function within a larger system—a school district with procedures, curricula, and policies. School districts must respond and work within even larger systems—state and federal bureaucracies and mandates. What happens in the society at-large affects each of these systems.
It is, therefore, in my view, important for school-age children and youth to have the opportunity to intelligently and respectfully discuss political issues—not just in high schools and not just in civics or social studies classes.
What does “apolitical” mean in a fake news and post-truth world? When political candidates of all stripes and their supporters tell outright lies, mess with the “facts,” or distort the truth, how can educators guide students in an open, respectful dialogue that touches on sensitive topics, including social justice issues? When post-election emotions are running high while results are still coming in or being questioned, what is an educator’s role in responding to these teachable moments?
Quotes from the Field
On December 2nd, the PBS Newshour published an article in their “Teachers’ Lounge” column called “Helping Students Understand the 2016 Election Results” In the article, the reporter Victoria Pasquantonio includes quotes from civics, social studies, English language arts, and world history teachers from across the country. I believe this article and the quotes are important reading for all educators who want to help students unpack the recent election cycle.
Like Ricky House, 7th-grade civics teacher, in Arlington, Virginia, who is quoted in the article, I would never tell students how to vote nor would I use my influence to tell students what to think about a political issue. On the other hand, I have not and would not hesitate to discuss election issues, such as specific policy platforms, marketing techniques, political activism, voting processes, voter ID laws, the process or effectiveness of polling, the Electoral College, and the popular vote. Some of these discussions could lead to social justice or injustice issues thus providing students with opportunities to think about policies, laws, and the Constitution and how they might be changed or interpreted for the betterment of society.
As librarians, we are charged with providing physical and intellectual access to information. We are committed to making sure that students are able to use literacy skills to think critically and apply critical thinking as informed citizens. As Ricky House says, we want our students to be equipped to “go out and use what (we’ve) taught them to change the world.” And yes, there are many who would consider that goal “political.”
The National Institute for Civil Discourse is a non-partisan center for advocacy, research and policy. To support civil discourse during the last election cycle, they offered a program for high schools called “Text, Talk, Vote.” School librarians and classroom teachers who are teaching digital literacy through social media may want to adapt this program.
Tips for School Librarians Who Coteach Controversial Issues
When coteaching controversial issues:
- Form instructional partnerships with trustworthy colleagues.
- Consider coteaching with educators who do not share your perspective and respectfully use your divergent thinking as a resource for learning.
- While coteaching, collaborative partners can provide each other with a bias-check before, during, and after instruction.
- Model civil discourse and guide students’ practice of civil discourse when discussing controversial issues.
Pasquantonio, Victoria. “Helping Students Understand the 2016 Election Results,” PBS Newshour, 2 Dec. 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/teachers-lounge-reaction-election-continues/
Image: Copyright-free Clip Art from Discovery Education