Anytime politics comes up in the classroom, I have a balancing act on my hands. Students are a captive audience and they need to have a safe space to feel differently than I do. But students always ask me what I think. I struggled for years with whether to answer and how to answer. But I finally arrived at the notion that honesty is the best policy.
In order to effectively create a safe space in my room, I feel I must own my biases up front–and I label them as biases. I encourage students to disagree with me and each other, as we can learn from dissension if we do not double down in a quagmire of cognitive dissonance. So these conversations deal just as much with psychology as they do with the content of nonfiction works like the State of the Union Address that we spent the day examining for use of rhetorical devices.
Needless to say, after assigning my students to watch the president’s address and be ready to discuss, they wanted to know what I thought. Before I could answer them, I had to ask a few questions in return. What did they think? What issues stood out to them? The president’s four pillars made the top of their list–along with comments about the overabundance of clapping, especially on the Republican side of the room. My students were curious about why the Democrats didn’t clap. That’s where I felt I could shed some light and help fill in the gaps in their background knowledge with as little bias as possible. After about 5-10 minutes of debriefing, I gave each table one page from the president’s speech. Each group had a different page from the speech (which printed out at 11 pages of 11pt. Times). They were assigned to read it, identify any use of ethos, pathos, and/or logos used by the president. I gave the groups about 10 minutes to work, then we shared out and found some commonalities–ethos and pathos with the personalized stories of the president’s guests, logos with the statistics on the economy, etc. The students were surprised that all three showed up on just about every page of the speech. And yes, I did give a few thoughts of my own but also acknowledged viewpoints that may not align with mine as well.
One last task the groups worked on with their page was to fact check the information found on their page of the speech. I showed them via the ELMO some great fact-checking websites. And they worked diligently until the end of the period on this piece that I gave them the opportunity to finish up at home that night.
I also assigned for students to “Chart the News” as we begin our examination of whether the media is doing a good job of informing the public or just part of the propaganda machine. I gave them a few days to watch two different news programs listing the segments/stories in the program for further analysis in class later in the week. If they thought they would dislike watching the president giving a speech, they knew that watching the news–something most of them had never done–would be even more of a challenge. If this is the only time in their high school career that they ever watch an entire news program, at least I will have exposed them to it.
“American Idiot” by Green Day