Discussing Politics in Class

As our political system grows ever more divisive, it has become increasingly important to encourage civic mindedness and thoughtful reflection in our students. US government teacher Kim Grosenbacher shares her tips for keeping classroom political conversations civil and improving students’ critical thinking skills.

  1. Set guidelines for political conversations. Before you start discussing hot-button issues, make sure students know they should refrain from speaking out if what they are going to say will hurt someone else. Let them know that if they show you that they’re not mature enough for the conversation, you will stop the discussion and move on.
  2. Redirect heated conversations with a question. If a conversation is getting uncomfortable, stop the discussion and ask students a question that reframes the conversation. Make sure students are focused on the policy, not the person.
  3. Have students write it down. If temperatures rise, consider stopping the discussion and having students write down their thoughts. This way they will still think through everything they wanted to say without offending anyone or inflaming the situation further. Let them know that what they write will be only for you to read and that it will not be graded.
  4. Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate. If your students all agree on a topic, don’t be afraid to take the other side, even if it doesn’t represent your own beliefs. Always ask students why they feel the way they do. Ask them to back up what they say with facts and research. Don’t let them say things like “It’s in the Constitution” without providing an explanation. Make them tell you where.
  5. Don’t share your personal opinions. Always present both sides of the issue fairly, regardless of your own beliefs. If students ask for your opinions on the issue, redirect the conversation. I tell students that it shouldn’t matter to them what I believe. I have both Democrat and Republican flags in my classroom.
  6. Have students do “field experience.” I have required students to engage in the community by doing such things as going to a school board meeting, picking up trash, or interviewing a veteran. Requiring students to get out in the world and make firsthand observations will both encourage them to be more civic minded and give them greater perspective that they can then bring back to your classroom. (As a side note, local veterans are a great community resource! They typically love to share stories and frequently have local contests that students can participate in.)
  7. Open your classroom with CNN Student News. CNN Student News is a great resource for middle and high school level teachers It gives students perspective on current events and provides great fodder for classroom.
  8. Encourage students to look at different kinds of sources. At the beginning of the year, I have students conduct research without giving them guidelines on what type of source they should use. They frequently come back with sources from Snapchat or other social media sites. I then require them to look at more rigorous sources, such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Christian Science Monitor. They sometimes balk at the longer articles, but they learn that greater details help complete the story more. Of course, I tell them that there are biases in all sources—but if you look at the same story in several different places, you can usually get a more well-rounded perspective.

Kim Grosenbacher is a high school social studies teacher in Boerne ISD. She has been teaching for 15 years and has been an ATPE member for 11 years.

Do you teach politics in your classroom? Post your own tips below.

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