As a series of seemingly never-ending horrific events dominates news headlines, children are especially vulnerable to the fear and anxiety these attacks can provoke.
More than ever, young people are exposed to violent and traumatic confrontations at home and abroad through social media. They feel the ripple effects of these and other disturbing events, which may threaten their own and their loved ones’ sense of well-being.
Inevitably, children bring these incidents, and their reactions to them, to school. Even the vitriolic rhetoric of the presidential campaign is having an impact on children. For example, a non-representative online survey of 2,000 teachers, titled “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools,” was conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It concluded that the campaign is “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color, and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.”
It would make sense for educators to prepare this summer for the reverberations of these intensely charged events inside classrooms and schools. This preparation should involve four vital elements: 1) understanding how they affect children of different ages, identities and communities; 2) learning how to facilitate constructive dialogue among students about current issues; 3) making learning about the democratic process a priority for all students; and 4) helping teachers grapple with increased tensions in society that play out in their work with students.
We know that classroom life is shaped by external forces in schools and society. For example, ongoing tensions among different racial, socioeconomic and religious groups that play out in schools will likely be heightened by what feels like a chaotic sociopolitical climate. At the same time, this year’s events, including the presidential election, provide possibilities for engaging students in what educators call “democratic learning” in the context of a multicultural society.
In addition to formal instruction in civics, democratic learning involves developing dispositions and skills to engage in democratic practices through active involvement in them. These practices include discussing controversial issues and making informed group decisions. Multicultural democratic learning includes developing appreciation for human diversity, the experiences of historically marginalized groups, and their struggles for equal rights. An example of a multicultural democratic learning opportunity is discussion of inter-group conflict from multiple points of view, which can produce critical thinking, deeper understanding of complex problems, and the ability to participate in civil discourse across differences.
Research points to the benefits of high-quality discussion of controversial issues, such as growth in tolerance for other points of view, interest in politics and knowledge about the issues students investigate. But researchers also find that sustained discussion of controversy rarely occurs in classrooms. This is due to concerns such as losing control of their classroom, retribution from administrators and community members, a lack of the skills needed to effectively teach these controversial issues, and competing demands such as the pressure to focus on academic outcomes and make sure students score well on standardized tests.
Demographic diversity among students also contributes to avoidance of taking on controversy in the classroom due to fear of conflict.
In fact, students of color, students at low-income schools and those in low-track classes have significantly fewer opportunities to learn about democratic processes than do their white, higher-income, college-bound peers. Equalizing democratic learning opportunities, which lead to increased political engagement and knowledge, should be a priority.
These volatile times call for helping teachers learn how to promote constructive discussions of charged issues with all their classes. Whether planned or not, these issues will get raised, if not by teachers, then by their students. We can be sure that young people, like adults, will feel compelled to discuss them to try and make sense of them. Classroom teachers and the professionals who support them – school leaders, teacher educators and professional developers – need to prepare for and take educational advantage of the disequilibrium created by these events. In fact, teacher educators and school administrators should lead the way by modeling constructive talk about difficult topics in their own practice.
Resources for facilitating discussion of difficult and controversial issues are plentiful. For those interested in research, Diana Hess’s book “Controversy in the Classroom” and “The Political Classroom,” by Hess and Paula McAvoy, are excellent resources. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance website offers Teaching about Race, Racism, and Police Violence as well as many other tools. Facing History and Ourselves also provides materials on a wide range of topics. Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post published a list of resources in her column. University websites have posted guidelines for discussion, especially in the wake of campus protests.
Promoting constructive dialogue about controversy is a matter of educational will. It involves risks for teachers. To give them adequate support, school leaders, communities and policy makers must get behind multicultural democratic education as a central purpose of schooling. Learning to do it well takes time. Now is the time to start.
Judith L. Pace is a professor of teacher education at the University of San Francisco, and author of “The Charged Classroom: Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching.”
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