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As I write this, there has been yet another terrible attack in a European city. Bombs in Brussels, Belgium have killed over 30 people and injured almost 200 (at this writing). I sit in sadness considering the world we live in and the world in which my students are growing up. It’s actually not as dangerous a world as past generations. But it doesn’t feel that way. And the dangers of this era are tinged with a visceral animosity and hatred that has begun to blanket our culture like a suffocating smoke.
As teachers, we find this an increasingly difficult challenge: how do we teach our students to live well together in such a divisive world? The examples they see from political and celebrity leaders don’t endorse the idea of kindness or collaboration. The media they watch is rife with constant divisiveness, conflict, petty arguments, and distrust. Acrimonious and even violent language infests political discourse at the highest levels – even among men who purport to want to be President of this country. The classroom is not immune to any of this. The classroom can in fact a boiling pot of the same tensions reverberating throughout society. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
A free and open society, a republic like we have in the United States and that exists in many other countries, requires more engagement and citizenship than other forms of government. Yet our students are often daunted by the prospect of engagement in a society swirling with negative discourse, violence, and even outright bigoted hatred. Even teachers hesitate to consider themselves as political beings – except that teaching, especially in today’s American public schools – is as political act you can make in the advancement of a socially just society. And teaching students civic engagement and civil discourse is not just the realm of Social Studies teachers; it belongs in every classroom.
Actively teaching and modeling civil discourse, giving students a space to practice engaging with each other about their beliefs in a respectful way, and taking on controversial topics are all ways to transform the classroom into a space of hope. Here are two practical ways you can begin to make your teaching space one of engagement, positive civil discourse, and living well together:
Tackle the Issue of Distrust. Much of the acrimony in our society, and specifically in our political discourse, arises out of an increased level of distrust. More than almost any other western society, Americans live in a constant state of distrusting their leaders, their neighbors, even themselves. The immediate reaction to tragic events like what happened in Brussels this week, or to mass shootings at one of the many places in America where this happens, is often to fan the flames of distrust, increase aggressive language and violent responses abound, such as blanket condemnations of whole groups of people, increased sales of weapons, and swirling negative images and conversations in the media.
Create an environment of trust in your classroom by starting with yourself. Trust your students. Speak to them with the respect of someone who truly believes they will do their best. Imbue in them the truth that trustworthiness is actually the easier path. Next, give them opportunities to trust each other. Cultivate non-coercive discussion activities, where their grade or an assessment is not dependent on their “group work,” but allows them to engage with each other to seek answers, ask more questions, and not judge each other’s work product. Set ground rules – explicitly ask them to trust each other and respect each other. Ask them to write their own ideas about a topic you introduce first, then allow them to engage in casual conversations and give them time to share their ideas in small pairs or groups that don’t necessarily have to report back to you or to the whole class. This allows for non-threatening environment in which they can begin to feel more confident about their own ideas, and they can begin to trust each other. They will also trust you, that your goal is not to judge or constantly limit them, but rather to allow them room to grow without the coercive, high-stakes pressure of constant performance.
Engage with Empathy. Don’t be afraid to introduce controversial topics in your classroom that allow your students to think critically about different points of view than their own. Virtually every subject in their curriculum can lend to this. Empathy must be taught and nurtured, and in our caustic society, we know that many of our students don’t go home to spaces of empathy, nor are they shown much empathy by the adults around them in our society. They witness children and teenagers being harmed in multiple ways all around them. They see politicians who speak loftily of military dominance but say nothing about creating a society where children are safe to walk to school. So the classroom can be that space for them.
When you introduce a topic in your classroom, allow the students time and space to consider their own perspective, and then those of others. The simple action of “stepping into someone’s shoes” for a moment can significantly change a young person’s perspective. If a student declares something inappropriate in class, don’t be afraid to confront it by challenging it with an empathy lesson. Too many teachers don’t confront ugly things said by students because they don’t like “conflict” in their classrooms. This is exactly what perpetuates conflict. Instead, stopping students from speaking before they think can have a huge impact on creating a trustworthy, empathetic environment.
There is no way to ignore the ugly and crass language peppering our culture and our presidential race. There is no way to ignore the tragedy and fear produced by terrorist attacks and the cultural conflict going on between the West and groups like ISIS. But none of this will ever change without engaged, thoughtful, hope-filled citizens.
To create a culture that counters the distrust, acts and speaks with empathy, and lives well together, teaching engaged citizenship and civil discourse in every classroom is the place to start.