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School Climate

Taking the Heat Out of Politically Charged Classroom Discussions

A social studies framework can help create a school environment where political discussions are fact-based and respectful.

December 1, 2020
High school student gives presentation in class
AnnaStills / iStock

In our polarized country, the civic mission of our schools can become a political minefield where teachers dare not tread. Public, political, and parental pressures can easily overwhelm novice and veteran teachers alike and dissuade them from engaging in critical conversations.

Without consistent and full-throated support, teachers often choose to avoid politically sensitive topics rather than court community backlash from the right or the left. In consequence, our classrooms fail to model civil discourse, and our students mirror the bad behaviors perpetuated in the self-selected echo chambers of their social and news media outlets.

We have to ask ourselves how we can support our teachers in breaking this cycle to create an environment where students can be active and informed citizens. We must also ask ourselves how we restore the civic mission that is at the heart of American education.

I’d argue that the answer to both questions lies in the National Council for the Social Studies’ College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, through which students can learn the skills and practices needed for democratic decision-making in their local, state, or national community.

The answer also lies in creating a schoolwide set of norms and values that stretches beyond each classroom and applies to an entire school community. At its heart, civil discourse in schools depends on deliberately creating a safe, inclusive, and thoughtful shared space.

Expand the Values Beyond Individual Classrooms

My teachers and I work in Sparta, New Jersey, which is in a dark red corner of a deep blue state. To support a civic space, we have employed a shared set of beliefs that fosters positive student interaction. By implementing a framework of common beliefs and a consistent approach to critical conversations, we foster a culture of listening, deliberating, and appreciating differences rather than an environment of deriding, attacking, and ignoring opposing views.

Although many teachers independently create these civic spaces within their classrooms, the shared culture is a powerful reinforcement that is felt period to period and year to year. A community approach to this civic framework ensures that students have consistent engagement throughout the school day.

The first and hardest step in developing a shared framework involves building a consensus as to what constitutes a civic space. A department, building, or district must clearly establish a single set of behaviors that represents civility. These guidelines must be authentic to your community.

I recommend beginning with a small group of stakeholders to determine a mission statement for civil discourse in your community. From this statement, a series of guidelines and behaviors can be generated by a larger committee. Then, as with the passage of an ordinance, you can elicit public comment or feedback from the larger community. You can use established groups, such as a school climate committee, to begin this process. This collaboration enables ownership of the civic space and consistency in its implementation.

Schools I have worked with typically begin with a dozen or so rules derived from “The Use of Discussion Protocols in Social Studies” and “Ground Rules for Discussion” from the National Council for the Social Studies. The accumulated knowledge of the experienced teachers in the room also informs our choices.

Behaviors of Civil Discourse

School communities that I have worked with on building civic spaces generally settle on five to seven behaviors that serve as a framework. In the Sparta Township Public Schools, we have arrived at the following six behaviors to guide civil discourse within and among our classrooms.

1. Listen respectfully and actively: Teachers encourage students to take notes and think about what is being said. Students should always refrain from calling out loud or raising their hands until the speaker is finished, and teachers can offer students a moment—a purposeful pause—to write down their statements before they respond. Students should embrace this engaged silence within the civic space.

2. Use facts to support positions: The use of evidence has been regrettably missing in public discourse. Students should avoid speculation, conjecture, and false equivalencies and rely on facts from credible and academically sound sources to support positions. In preparation for a discussion, teachers should assign fact gathering and can even coach students on how to use their mobile devices in a responsible way to research facts. If a spontaneous conversation on a current event becomes a teachable moment, students can conduct live fact-checking to ensure informed discussions.

3. Challenge ideas, not individuals: Students must be encouraged to use affirmative language to acknowledge opposing points of view—for example, “I see your point, but...” or “What I’m hearing is...” or “I disagree/agree with... and here’s why.” The teacher should communicate that tone matters and that students should be respectful and moderate; no yelling or interrupting. These sentence stems or starters can also be posted so that students can reference the expressions during the discussion.

4. Commit to learning, not winning: Everyone in the room must be dedicated to expanding our understanding of the topics discussed, not winning the debate. Using everyone’s opinions or perspectives can help form a whole group’s understanding of the subject. I recommend removing the word debate from the classroom lexicon and replacing it with discussion or conversation.

5. Define terms toward common understanding: Disagreements often arise when we assume that we share the same definition of key terms. Teachers should preface discussions with clear, academic, and age-appropriate definitions of key terms involved in the discussion. When discussions are spontaneous, the teacher should pause the conversation to create an agreement upon definition. The objective is to unload often loaded terms: What is racist? What is sexist? What is socialism? What is fake news? What is justice? What is fair?

6. Stay relevant: Classroom discussions must be germane to the curriculum or to the lives of the students. The conversations should be relevant to understanding the objective of the lesson or the unit. Help students find the connection between the past and the present.

Once the behaviors have been agreed upon, a department, school, or district must communicate the common language of civic spaces to all the stakeholders. In Sparta, each social studies teacher has shared the “Civic Space” framework with their students and families through their online classrooms, classroom syllabi, and Back to School Night presentations. Classroom visuals and hallway bulletin boards remind students of the values of the civic space. Depending on your level of community commitment, these guidelines can be shared through the district website or across academic disciplines, or even adopted by elected bodies (school board or local governing body).

Our current atmosphere of political polarization did not develop overnight, and it will not be dismantled by snapping our fingers or engaging in wishful thinking. However, a concerted community response can begin to foster a culture of civil discourse and create a civic space that can transform citizenship in the future.

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