Dr. David Dockterman (Dock): The classroom is one of the few places left in America that brings together people regardless of their views and beliefs. As a former social studies teacher, I think we have an obligation to leverage current and controversial issues to teach students about how our democratic system works and how to talk with each other even when we disagree. Back in the day, I actually taught a course called "Contemporary Issues." Race. The Iranian hostage crisis. Abortion. Those conversations were difficult. But in today's political climate, where inflammatory language is the norm and social media quickly fans emotional flames, having political discourse anywhere is incredibly challenging. And now, impeachment. How does that conversation play out in class? Dr. Emma Humphries is the Chief Education Officer at iCivics, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to promote civics education. Dr. Humphries sees these times as an opportunity, a teachable moment, if there ever was one. She talked with Geraldine Stevens about strategies on how to approach this conversation in class.
[Read an expanded transcript of the conversation between Dr. Emma Humphries and Geraldine Stevens here: Teaching Impeachment in the Classroom: Q&A With Emma Humphries of iCivics.]
Dock: So there we have some useful guidance. But what happens in an actual classroom discussion? Jayson Chang is a social studies history teacher. And he seems to embrace the spirit of Dr. Humphries' approach. Can you tell us a little bit about the community, the context of where you live, where your classroom lives, and what it's like there?
Jayson Chang: I teach out in San Jose, California. In terms of racial demographics, my school is maybe 25% white, 25% Asian, 30% Hispanic, 10% black, and then other. So when I'm looking really in terms of the classroom population, it's pretty diverse.
Dock: How about politically?
Jayson: I would say that the students think they identify as liberal, but they're not even sure what it means. That is not to say that we don't have conservatives, especially those coming from conservative backgrounds—and I would argue that those who do come from conservative backgrounds are more aware of where they stand. Whereas with the majority of students, they're not entirely sure where they stand, whether they're actually moderate liberals, far left or any of that sort.
Dock: It's a great reminder that these students are still forming their identities. And for those who are kind of in the milieu, they may not be clear. And for those who are, in a sense, more marginalized in the broader community politically, I think that's your point, that those people may have a little more clarity or at least think they have more clarity about their political stance than others do. What were you planning to do to address the issue of impeachment?
Jayson: Actually, a lot of these topics just naturally form. Students see things on social media, Twitter, Snapchat and stuff like that, and then they bring it up and inform me. It's a teaching moment. And I'm really focusing more on the civics aspect to it because all of my seniors, they're all going to be voters in 2020.
Dock: So what happened in this conversation? Were there times where you had to kind of calm people down and emotions potentially got out of control?
Jayson: First thing, I go in the morning and they say, 'Oh, did you hear about the news?' Right? I'm like, 'Yeah, I did.' So actually, I went in with nothing planned. So it was a very organic conversation that started with the class that I actually moved away from what I had originally planned for the day. In terms of disagreement, there was not much disagreement when it came to it, but then I had to play the role on the disagreeing side. There might be, right now, some students who are not as comfortable sharing their views, [so] I have to play to that side to make sure that those students feel safe in the classroom, that they're not being judged by what their own views are.
Dock: So, Jayson, when you take that opposing viewpoint, do you try and model a way to represent that viewpoint that is sort of emotions suppressed and argument high?
Jayson: Oh, yeah, totally. You know, we look more at the policy. I always have to remind students of people's views on these topics is because, again, [of] their own background. It is it is not the person that we are attacking. Right? It's the ideas that they come in... And the thing is, it's like, you can you can talk about it. And I have colleagues that would go like, 'OK, I'm not touching that topic. Like, I'm not touching it because that's that's going to go nowhere.' But the classroom is a space that you can have these kinds of discussions. Look, if there is a right way to teach civics, then why do we have left right politics? You come with your own founts of knowledge in the classroom, your own background and all of that. And that forms your views. And I always, like always remind the students, 'hey, honestly, I don't really care where you lean politically on the spectrum. For me, what I care about, is that you, when you turn 18 or even right now, you go out there and be civically engaged, form the community and society that you want, vote the way that you want to vote. Be an informed voter, be an informed participant. And that's the same thing that I tell parents on back to school night. I tell the parents that and I do have the parent support when I bring that up.
Dock: Talking to Jason brought back great memories since I stood in his shoes a long time ago. But it's much harder for him today than I think it was for me. The divisions are so stark and emotions are so high. But I like what he said, is that you first have to establish a safe place. You really can't have this discussion in a civil way until you've established that environment. And so you really have to create a place, set the rules for how to engage, for how to respect each other, to not talk about the people, but talk about the issues and the process before any of these kind of conversations can happen. You just can't leap into it. And that takes time. Both Dr. Humphries and Jayson Chang emphasized the need to establish a classroom culture that feels safe for all students. Students must respect each other. Monitor the tone and content of their language and learn how to listen. And the teacher? The teacher needs to enroll the community in the shared goals of learning how the process works and how to engage in civil discourse. In the academic community, we talk about belonging and psychological safety. A safe classroom doesn't just open the door to challenging conversations. It feeds all learning. Like it or not, students bring the world with them into the classroom. I hope we've helped you understand how to turn today's events into useful learning.
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