Fostering Civil Discussions

Fostering Civil Discussions

Michael, Middle School Social Studies Teacher

The current rancorous political divide is as passionate as it is pervasive, and it has created the proverbial catch-22 in the modern Middle School classroom. Given the fractious nature of political discussion, is it wise to even touch those subjects in class, or do we owe it to our students to protect them from these issues until they are “older”? After all, isn’t the classroom meant to be a safe space dedicated to the higher pursuit of development and learning? On the other hand, don’t we owe it to our developing young men and women to present current events and give them the room to work through such complex issues? After all, political science, civics, and government are three of the five key components of social studies curricula. In addition, the widespread and immediate availability of information makes shielding students from the world around them a Sisyphean task. Thus, while encouraging political debate in the classroom may be a task as eagerly anticipated as dinner with Damocles, it has become a necessary undertaking that requires careful negotiation.

Rather than shy away from this challenge in Green Acres’ Middle School, we have chosen to lean into it in a variety of ways. First and foremost are the regular discussions of current events that occur in all of the Middle School social studies classes. Beginning in 5th grade, Middle School students are asked to read (or watch, or listen to) the news and report on the stories they encounter. By engaging with the news on a regular basis, students develop their ability to understand and summarize world events. While the 5th graders’ reports early in the school year will typically be a statement of the headline, by the end of 6th grade, students are able to offer more in-depth reports that answer questions about the greater impact of their chosen story. More important are the discussions that occur based on the student reports. For example, the recent initiation of the impeachment inquiry against President Trump led to an examination of the impeachment process and how it parallels a criminal procedure, with the impeachment mirroring a criminal indictment and the House of Representatives acting as the grand jury. Similarly, events at a local high school led to a discussion about school security and how far schools should go to protect their students, which then launched a discussion about gun control. The discussion was totally student generated and guided, with the teacher simply acting as moderator. By encouraging students to interact with issues and providing them a safe space to work through their own thoughts, we create a group of civically literate students who are not afraid to offer opinions on sensitive topics and are capable of offering cogent opinions on issues.

Current events discussions offer one route to introduce and debate current topics; the other is the historical curriculum that we teach. Connecting past events to present circumstances is a key part of Middle School social studies because it encourages students to develop their abstract critical thinking skills and to apply content knowledge in a variety of different ways. It also illustrates how contemporary issues have historical precedents. For example, students in 5th grade will compare the laws of Hammurabi’s Code to current laws and explore the ways in which punishments for certain crimes are harsher today than they were in Ancient Mesopotamia. In 6th grade, a student might use British taxation after the French and Indian war as a platform to examine the rights of citizens under their government and the rights of a government to tax its citizens. Similarly, the Quartering Act of 1765 might lead to a discussion of people’s rights to privacy in their own homes. While politics may appear to be the third rail of the Modern Middle school social studies class, providing students with opportunities and a safe space to engage in these discussions allows us to continue developing socially and politically conscious individuals.

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