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Southwest Washington teachers tackle politics in the classroom

For a high school government teacher in 2020, there’s no telling what any given day will bring.

How do you plan a curriculum around the impeachment of President Donald Trump? What about the late entry of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the race for the White House? Or the lack of results a day after the Iowa caucuses?

That last one was the exact challenge facing Woodland High School teacher Shari Conditt last month.

“I don’t know what normal is,” Conditt said at one point in her advanced government class, as her students rapid-fire flipped through CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times that Tuesday afternoon.

It’s been nearly a month, and it’s still not entirely clear who won Iowa; but by this point, it’s old news. Besides, teachers like Conditt have other topics to cover with their students.

“The sure thing about politics is, it’s ever changing, and there’s always something to talk about,” Conditt said.

The chaos of today’s political climate offers plenty of opportunities to watch lessons about American government come to life. But talking about politics in the classroom can be fraught territory. Experts warn that, much like in the world beyond the classroom, good-natured debates can give way to polarizing arguments. If handled correctly, however, these real-world lessons can give young people the tools they need to think, and vote, critically in the years to come.

“We don’t want sheep,” said Jerry Price, social studies program supervisor for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “We want people who can actively engage and be meaningful members of the community.”

Or, as 13-year-old Brayah Rule, an eighth-grader at Vancouver iTech Preparatory School, put it after a recent classroom discussion about the Environmental Protection Agency: “We need to form our own ideas when we’re young.”

Classroom debate

In Erin Lark’s science classroom at Vancouver iTech Preparatory school, her eighth-grade students sat in two concentric circles, like a target. For a few minutes, students pored over the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission statement.

Think about the important pieces, structures, questions you may come up with while reading, Lark told her students. Then, she opened the circle for discussion.

This is a program called a Socratic Seminar, a discussion format typical to university classrooms but adapted for Lark’s middle school students. Lark gives her students a series of documents to read, then encourages them to discuss the text. While the inside circle talks — sometimes heatedly — the outside circle listens and keeps notes.

Erin Lark teaches environmental and physical science at the Vancouver Public Schools magnet campus. These classroom discussions are a cornerstone of her teaching, particularly as students have expressed interest in sustainability and other subjects.

“It’s almost like science teachers have to become social studies teachers,” she said.

It’s also representative of what experts say is a key component of creating a politically engaged classroom: discussion.

Political classrooms

Diana Hess, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, and Paula McAvoy, assistant professor of social studies education at North Carolina State College, argue in their 2015 book “The Political Classroom” that teachers should encourage their students to have challenging conversations about political issues. Their research found that students who were allowed to discuss their viewpoints on controversial issues better understood current events, were more likely to read the news and said they were more likely to vote.

“I think the more informed people are, the more likely they are to participate,” Hess said. “It’s hard to get excited about something you don’t understand.”

The research by Hess and McAvoy also suggested that students who actively participated in political discussion showed more interest in listening to people with whom they disagreed. Studies by the Pew Research Center show that, between 1994 and 2017, Americans have become increasingly polarized and less likely to listen to people whose views they may not share.

“You have to learn how to self-regulate and how and when to say things so you are heard,” McAvoy said.

Lark’s student, Brayah, and one of her classmates, Avery Starr, held the reins on leading. They encouraged their quieter classmates to share their views, and they offered their own bits of commentary where appropriate.

“I love getting to debate with people,” Avery admitted.

Brayah agreed, saying the class has given her a chance to talk about climate change and other important issues.

“We want to start dealing with it early,” she said.

Legislative priority

In 2018, the Legislature mandated that every public high school offer standalone civics classes in addition to existing history and social studies coursework, allocating $234,000 for expanded civics education. Of that, $80,000 is available for local educational service districts to apply for funding to create professional development opportunities for teachers.

According to state standards, students should be able to leave civics classes understanding government organizations, the electoral system and current issues. They should be able to discuss controversial issues and talk about the role the government plays in their lives.

“Our standards are aligned to critical thinking,” said OSPI’s Price. “We’re really trying to get to the point where we ask them really intriguing questions about why people should vote, or what is the purpose of government.”

Price added that it’s critical for students to leave school feeling empowered and that they can have a voice in their own worlds.

“We’re so stratified. There’s so much divisiveness,” Price said. “I think the best thing social studies teachers can do is to pose questions that are about civic issues and let students really do the heavy lifting of coming to their own conclusions.”

‘Let students have choices’

At the Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies, English and social studies teacher Jonathan Schnacky’s students made short documentaries for C-SPAN’s StudentCam competition. The annual contest challenges student filmmakers to explore current issues through a series of interviews and analysis. Students in this year’s contest discussed the issues on which they most want the 2020 candidates to focus; in Schnacky’s class, they interviewed experts on climate change, human trafficking and medicine.

“If you really want full engagement, you have to let students have choices,” Schnacky said.

Fabiola Rico, a 16-year-old junior, completed a video on racism and other types of discrimination. She visited Vancouver immigration attorney Mercedes Riggs one afternoon to interview her for the project.

“I’m Hispanic, and I know other families who have dealt with racism,” Fabiola said. “They’re still people. It’s important to discuss it.”

Still, the current political climate has posed unique challenges for Schnacky. During the impeachment proceedings, he designed an impromptu curriculum (after all, it’s not every day a sitting president is accused of abuse of power), where students researched and collected information about the charges against the president. They then, acting as the Senate, voted on whether or not to convict him.

The classes were split. One period voted in favor of conviction, the other against, and each class’ vote was close.

“My job is not to tell them what to think and what to read,” Schnacky said. “It’s to tell them how to find information.”

Politics, not partisanship

Researchers and teachers say there’s a difference between teachers being political and being openly partisan. Those concerns are particularly heightened in today’s politically divided climate.

That’s not to say it’s impossible for teachers to share their own views, Hess said, but she added that the most successful educators create a space for all viewpoints in their classrooms.

“They don’t have parents complaining, in part because the students in those classrooms through they were in a fair space,” she said.

McAvoy said that in her research she’s encountered teachers who believe it’s only fair to share their view on subjects, but she’s not convinced.

“What you care about as a teacher is that they’re learning, they’re thinking hard,” McAvoy said.

For Conditt, who was recognized in 2016 as the Washington State History Teacher of the Year, it’s an issue not worth touching. She recalled a teacher she had as a student who frequently shared his viewpoints, leaving her feeling isolated and frustrated.

“I was really uncomfortable, because I didn’t share all of his values and didn’t know how to navigate that as a result,” she said. “It made me feel like an outsider. That hurts.”

Conditt does, however, encourage her students to vote. She has a stack of voter registration forms in her classroom, and she offers to turn them in for students when they turn 18.

“Some of them have received (presidential) primary ballots in the mail,” Conditt said in an email last week. “They are quite excited to vote!”

Daylin Siple, 18, is one of those new voters.

“I’ve never been that involved,” Siple said, but now, “I’m really attentive to news stories.”

“It’s easier to come up with my own opinions,” she added.

Her classmate, Kelly Sweyer, is 17 right now, but in November, she’ll be old enough to vote in the presidential election. She said classroom discussions have taught her about the value of her ballot.

“We’re the next group of voters, and our vote is important,” she said.


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