We Can’t Avoid Politics. Here’s How to Bring Them Into the Classroom

Nov 16, 2020 12:00:00 AM

by Robert S. Harvey

Only days after the projected presidential results, a microphone unmutes with shuffling in the backdrop, and a doubtful guise on the face of a teenage, Dominican high schooler appears. "Dr. Harvey, I have something to say, but you might not like it. You promise to let me finish?" It would not be the first time a student had a thought that I disagreed with.

“What did I assure you of on day one?” I replied, hoping to invite a vulnerability that would counter his internally casted shadow of doubt.

“That we can say our truth, as long as we are moving democracy forward, centering the best of humanity, controlling for our biases, and supporting our claims with evidence, lived or heard or read.”

“Exactly, so let’s hear it.” I clenched my fists tightly under my desk—a benefit born of teaching via Zoom in the age of COVID-19—unknowing of where his comment might take us.

“I think having four years of Trump was good for America. I mean, not the racism, toxic masculinity, homophobic stuff, and fake Christianity. But after Obama was elected, my family, which is Dominican, acted like racism wasn’t a thing anymore or whatever. They thought they were honorary white people. So, Trump kind of brought us back to reality.”

The chat unhinged with agreements and dissentions, but never was anyone demeaned, humiliated or dismissed. It underscored two truths: [pullquote]young people are often more matured in politically charged discussions than adults; and normalizing politics in our classrooms is not only possible, but vital.[/pullquote]

In public school classrooms all across the country, from rural, midwestern America to metropolitan, coast cities, teachers are often avoidant of political conversation in classrooms. Some schools and districts have gone as far as mandating “no politics in the classroom” as a principle.

[pullquote position="right"]This idea of avoiding, or even barring, politics in classrooms threatens the future of a thoughtful and moral democracy.[/pullquote] Classrooms, beyond being bastions of knowledge, are labs of political meaning-making, ethical question-asking and justice arc-leaning. As we intentionally invite students to wrestle with the principles and practices of our republic, without judging or measuring ideological leanings [as best as humanly possible, because let’s be real: we all have them], we embody what it means to advance the democratic project.

However, most teachers in classrooms feel ill-prepared to guide students in political conversations, particularly in a contentious environment, such as the one we are living through as election results are being contested in the name of “voter fraud” without clear, meaningful evidence while more than 75 million other Americans are relieved. Instead, teachers are either disregarding politics altogether [or so they think] or closing their proverbial doors to feel their way through without much guidance. To the former, teachers taking a posture of silence are still speaking. And in schools that disproportionately enroll Black and brown students, economically and housing vulnerable students, and students without citizenship, that silence is loud.

The question, then, is how can teachers normalize politics in the classroom as a way to advance the American democratic project?

Establish a spirit of community

An oft overused, but undervalued concept—community—is critical to normalizing politics in the classroom. Instead of classroom rules and punitive consequences based on nonexistent, forecasted student errors, creating affirmative and humanizing community agreements create a context for authenticity and vulnerability where students feel comfortable exchanging ideas. 

Creating and doing community as a way of being in the classroom, and not simply a synonym for the word, ‘classroom’ starts before day one of the school year. In the summer, leading up to the first day of school, teachers should extend themselves to every student and family, probing what matters most to them, and inviting them to communicate freely before, during and after the year. Then, in the early days of class, students should be led through higher-order thinking exercises and questions to mutually and democratically create community agreements that embody a human approach to what happens in those hallowed walls.

Expand our definition of political

Almost every textbook definition of political centers around, “the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group related to governing.” That definition fails to capture the nuance and embodiment practices of what it means to be political, which I define with students as “who accesses ‘what’, and then determines when and where others get to participate in the ‘what’.”

In that sense, [pullquote]teaching is political, learning is political, reading is political, writing is political, mathematics is political, money is political, and our very existence is political.[/pullquote]

By expanding our definition of political, we expand our conversations by freeing them from ideologies. When we say, “all politics is local,” we invite students to make meaning of how life is formed and informed by the political—and then use that to invite students to engage with political events and concepts and newlines as local-to-life practice. When students see why they attend the school they attend, or why their school is a voting site, or how a bus route is developed, or why library computers lack newest edition software as “political,” it takes on deeper meaning.

Eradicate the need to be right

People like to be right, especially young people, which is understandable because being right is often validation of our acumen. But, normalizing politics in the classroom demands taking “right” off the table. In fact, being “right” inherently contradicts the democratic experience, which is built on myriad perspectives around issues. As custodians of the community, the clearest way to eradicate the need for students to be right is modeling conversational humility around all topics. 

When our students experience us: admitting when we are short on answers, seeking clarity on topics by doing our research publicly, and acknowledging when we’ve erred in our information or our approach to a topic, we begin eradicating our internal obsession with rightness. Additionally, when students share their perspectives, we should avoid measuring their responses against our principles, but should measure their responses against the community agreements

This post originally appeared on Citizen Education.

Robert S. Harvey

Dr. Robert S. Harvey is an educator, school leader, community connector, writer, and public scholar. Drawing upon lived experiences, ethics, and a bold vision for the future of education, his leadership and writing has a threefold focus—love, justice and hope— with children at the heart.

He is currently the Superintendent of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a community-based network of public charter schools (PreK-12th) in New York City with more than  1,500 students; and Chief Academic Officer of East Harlem Tutorial Program, managing an Out-of-School Time (OST) program and Teaching Residency. He is also a Visiting  Professor in the Practice of Public Leadership at Memphis Theological Seminary.

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