Every teacher knows that kids love to give their opinions. Opinions end up getting shared whether you’re asking for them or not. Sometimes they’re yelled out in class, and other times they’re shared through assignments. If you’re lucky, they’re on topic, but sometimes they come out of left field.
Hearing what’s in a student’s head is one of the joys of the job. I love rich discussions. I love them in classroom discourse and online discussion groups. I’ve learned from my students arguably more so than they’ve learned from me.
But what happens if the opinion that a student shares is one that you totally disagree with? The answer, of course—and it’s hard sometimes—is to keep that to yourself.
That isn’t to say that we do nothing, but as role models in academic discourse, it means we have to honor opinions and focus on learning and sharing diverse viewpoints, even if that means a student settles on a viewpoint we do not share.
I do share my opinions on my own Facebook page, but the school is a sacred place for kids to learn different academic viewpoints: scientific ones, historical ones, ones from literature, ones from current events, and ones from the world around us. Then they can disseminate their own opinions based on facts. That is what maturing is all about, and we’re lucky enough to get to see it firsthand.
So what I’ve been working to do lately whenever a student brings up opinions based on current politics, religion, or values (whether I agree or disagree) is to focus on the academic level of the argument being made—not on the opinion itself. It’s what we’re tasked to do: help students communicate content better.
Staying Focused on Form
I’ve been a writing teacher for the past 15 years and a speech and debate coach (recently retired) for nearly the same number. As such, I see and hear a lot of arguments. Some arguments are structured essays or speeches while others simply come from building a community of learners in my classroom who feel at ease in sharing their opinions. It’s what you want from a classroom—a place where kids take risks in what they voice and write. Brief note here: Of course you could have a silent classroom or one that never asks students for their opinions on anything. However, I think we all know that isn’t an option. We can’t keep the door closed because we don’t want to tackle what’s behind it.
Anyway, as a teacher who encourages the sharing-out of opinions whether in the form of a quickwrite in a journal, an Ignite-style speech, or a Four Corners debate, I find that it helps to keep a few things in mind.
1. A student’s opinions most likely come from the home: Students build opinions based on those around them. They overhear, they are actively taught, and they acquire their opinions by listening to and interacting with the adults in their life. It can be difficult, but our task is to be someone they want to listen to because they trust our objectivity. It’s our job to inspire, not convince.
2. Give feedback on the quality of communication, not the content of the opinion: Recently, a very sweet middle school student gave me her speech on how we should all come together as a country. She presented a perfectly solid argument. Her hook, however, began by slamming those who are struggling with our new leadership. She had focused her attention-getter on a made-up piece of dialogue that was hyperbolic and over-the-top and had a whiny tone. I realized that what we were talking about wasn’t a difference of opinion so much as a lack of empathy, and I focused on how much more sophisticated her argument could be if she would take a more compassionate approach (and tone).
I kept the criticism to the choices she made as a writer: her voice and the strategy of attention-getter she used as well as the examples and evidence to support her point. Her second draft, therefore, didn’t stray from her initial topic, but was a more convincing speech because it more sensitively handled how we could be more unified. Her call to action, at the end, wasn’t so much a demand (as it was in the first draft) but an encouragement.
3. Teach about bias, not just false information: We’ve all been warned about helping students recognize fake news, but it’s also vital to continue teaching about biased reporting. This kind of news isn’t necessarily fake, but I tell students that in an argument, any argument, if we want to be respected for sophistication, we must find ways to gather evidence through true data, not biased opinions.
Help students learn to identify the publisher of websites so that they can cite from more objective sources. Help students be more critical of those who counter with opinion, not fact. Help students learn to tell an emotional argument from a logical one, a manipulative strategy from one that is straightforward in its persuasiveness.
4. Teach the art of the counterargument: Help students recognize that the other side—no matter what side that is—has a point. Those who disagree with you aren’t crazy. That also means pushing back when kids are aligned with what you believe. Make sure that any student who gives an opinion must not only back it up with fact-based evidence, but also must acknowledge the other side and be able to cite at least one fact-based resource that supports that opposing side.
This not only challenges students to argue at a higher level but also encourages empathy. Try the following outline to help kids begin to acknowledge the other side of any argument:
- It’s true the other side disagrees with me when they say that _____________.
- In fact, according to ___________ (source), “________________” (quote evidence that proves that argument exists).
From there, a student can push back as to why that’s not enough to convince them, but at least they’ve had to do the legwork of entering the opposition’s resources and seeing what they’re all about.
Student’s Ideas Are Works in Progress
A child brought up one way may go through their life collecting facts and opinions from others and, as a result, may come to an entirely different decision by the time they reach adulthood. A child raised as a Democrat may grow up to be a Republican. The president of the Young Republicans might be marching for a more liberal agenda one day. No child’s opinion is set in stone. And that’s as it should be.
We want kids to come to class to learn something new, ready to consider changing their minds (or not). We want diverse, but educated, viewpoints.
But we must celebrate diverse views without being a voice of bias. Students are getting enough of that already. May our schools be safe places to learn facts and take risks, places where students can try out their own opinions. We want to help our students gather the strategies they need to one day make any argument they wish.