Using Politics to Zero In on Skills

shutterstock_458871724This is the third time I’ve rewritten this opening.

I wanted to start this blog post by telling the story of my experiences working on a political campaign in high school, and my teachers’ different reactions to that work. No matter how I wrote it, my husband kept telling me that my political opinion was shining through. Unfortunately, that was the whole point of my piece.

My experiences taught me how frustrating it can be for a high school student who’s just beginning to form her political opinions, only to have those opinions directly criticized by a teacher. Teachers certainly need to question faulty logic or unsupported opinions; we need to teach critical thinking skills and help students question the messages bombarding them. But, we also must walk a very careful line and respect their budding young beliefs.

Politics in a 2016 Classroom

This election has been so polarizing that some teachers have questioned that approach. Last week, ten former state and national teachers of the year published an open letter condemning Donald Trump, and rejecting the notion that teachers should remain neutral. I respect their belief that the uniqueness of this election requires a different response, but I’m still not sure I can abandon my practice of neutrality. I remember what it felt like to feel so strongly about a candidate, to be so passionately convinced that I was on the right side. And I remember what it felt like to have a teacher unequivocally tell me I was wrong.

It’s tempting to just put politics aside. There are plenty of other texts my students can study. I don’t want to step into a discussion and have hateful language–regardless of the target–supported and championed by students in my class. On the other hand, how can I not teach my students to dig into the texts that are all around us with this election? They have a right to engage in political discourse.

Educator Rick Wormeli, in his blog post for the Association for Middle Level Education, argues that teachers have the opportunity to show students “how to respond constructively to people and policies that offend us.” He makes some great points about balancing neutrality with an approach that respects students’ opinions, but I think there is one more step to consider when figuring out how to blend political texts into a secondary ELA classroom.

For me, the key comes in framing. Rather than focusing on the political topics themselves, I have the most success when I use the political material to zero in on skills we are learning and practicing. I give students texts from both ends of the political spectrum, teach them the skills to analyze them, and let them make their own decisions.

Zero In on Word Choice

shutterstock_339032462In my classes, we talk a lot about using precise language that gives you the most bang for your buck. Twitter forces that because you only have 140 characters. The day after the protests in Charlotte, NC, this fall, we talked about word choice and how it sends implicit messages. One example:

Those who protest in peaceful ways are welcome to the table, those who engage in chaos & violence have no place in society. #Charlotte

There’s a lot to unpack in that short sentence. The contrast of peace vs. chaos? The suggestion that you either do it peacefully or you have “no place in society”? The more we discussed it, the more my students realized there was a lot lurking under the surface. A tiny text opened the door to a great discussion about the power of word choice. And since it was directly related to a skill that is central to our work with critical reading and writing, I didn’t feel like I was ramming political opinions down their throats.

Zero In on Argument Structure 

We work on recognizing claims, evaluating evidence, and then examining the reasoning that goes with the evidence. Op-eds are excellent mentor texts for this type of writing because students can identify the claims, and then try to follow the threads of evidence and reasoning. In some cases, it becomes clear that those threads are a little weak; that leads to discussions about evidence-based arguments vs. emotional arguments.

Later, when students write their own op-eds, they have to justify the types of arguments they’re making in their writing. By linking the politics to the skills we’re studying in class, we can have rational, reasoned discussions–something too often lacking in the adult world of political discourse.

Zero In on Audience and Purpose

Finally, this political season has given us all kinds of ways to examine audience and purpose. When my students struggle to move beyond generalizations, I use political cartoons as a first step.

It’s easy to look at a cartoon and identify the target. But the followup questions are: Who is the target audience? Is this intended to convince people to change their minds? Is it intended to merely fire up people who already support the candidate? How can you tell? After students look closely at audience and purpose in visual texts, they are better prepared to consider those questions with written texts.

Using political material in class during such a polarizing election is tough. But I think it’s important to give students practice in the examination of these texts with a critical eye. Zeroing in on the skills will make them better prepared to make up their own minds.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Notes from the Classroom

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