Election season can stir discussion, emotion in classes

Election season can stir discussion, emotion in classes

The presidential race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is a hot topic among students and teachers.

If you’re already tired of all the campaign ads, you should probably keep your TV remote handy because Election Day is still several weeks away. You can’t escape from political discussions, even at school. Teachers and students alike are buzzing about politics, and it probably won’t stop until November.

But everyone isn’t comfortable discussing politics, and some question if such discussions belong in the classroom.

Fairmont Principal Dan Von Handorf said he thinks political discussions could be appropriate in many classes. “It’s hard to say it’s never appropriate … it depends on what the topic is in politics.”

Jessica Kelly, chair of the Social Studies Department, sees value in such classroom discussions. “Debate is an important skill and one that teachers in every class could use to enhance students’ understanding of content and their ability to think critically,” she said.

AP Government teacher Scott Byer also believes that current events are important, but adds, “The social sciences are more conducive to talking about politics.” However, he said he feels teachers in any subject could hold debates in the first five to 10 minutes of class over those current events most closely linked with their curriculum. “I think those are important opportunities that teachers can take advantage of.”

East Unit Physics teacher Jeff McManus doesn’t think political debates are appropriate in every class, but he could name a few classes that he feels could be appropriate. “I can think of a lot of Social Studies classes, like Economics, World and U.S. History, and U.S. Government,” he said. “Not many others.”

Some students agree it’s best to restrict political discussions to the Social Studies classes. “I feel that history classes are appropriate because it’s kind of about how the world’s been,” Anthony Cogliano, a sophomore, said. He didn’t have to give any thought over what classes were inappropriate. “Math class,” he said firmly.

Collin Berry, another sophomore, also thinks politics isn’t a good subject outside of the social sciences. “Really, math doesn’t have anything to do with politics,” he said. “English, maybe, because we get into books … like The Scarlet Letter, where we get into Puritan society.”

Civil debate vs. anger, hurt feelings

Debating politics can bring up lots of sensitive issues and strong feelings. Freshman Clayton Piatt just doesn’t want to go anywhere near politics, and he has drawn a very distinct line where he starts to get uncomfortable. “When they start asking questions; I don’t know anything about politics,” he admits.

Cogliano draws the line when tempers start to flare and people start getting upset. “You should be able to express what you believe,” he said.

McManus doesn’t want to bring up politics in his physics classes, but he says he’s happy to debate civilly after the dismissal bell or even after school. “I don’t talk about politics during class hours,” McManus said. “After class, if a student brings it up, I might have a nice conversation.”

The Kettering Board of Education has a policy (#2240 – Controversial Issues) that addresses many aspects related to political discussions in the classroom. The policy begins with the statement: “The Board of Education believes that the consideration of controversial issues has a legitimate place in the instructional program of the schools. Properly introduced and conducted, the consideration of such issues can help students learn to identify important issues, explore fully and fairly all sides of an issue, weigh carefully the values and factors involved, and develop techniques for formulating and evaluating positions.”

The policy later stipulates that the inclusion of a controversial issue must be “related to the instructional goals for the course” and the maturity of the students.

Some students believe teachers are not permitted to express their political views, but the same board policy states that teachers “…may express a personal opinion, but shall identify it as such,” and that teachers must not try to persuade students to adopt their point of view.

Some teachers feel it’s proper to share their political views in class; Byer doesn’t. “I don’t think my role is to share my views. I view my role as to inform and educate, to facilitate a debate on politics,” he said.

Sometimes students want to speak up but are too nervous or afraid they’ll be laughed at, shunned or even made fun of, but Piatt isn’t one of them. “Who really cares what other people think?” he said. “They have their own opinions, too.”

Berry had some advice, not only for students afraid to share their opinions, but also for those who may need help wording their thoughts in a way that would help create a safe atmosphere. “Think more about what you want to say and think how to say it … then just say it,” he said.

McManus agrees that if students are informed about their arguments, they have nothing to be afraid of. “If a student speaks up after they have informed themselves, then I think they won’t be embarrassed.”

Cogliano thinks students shouldn’t stress out about sharing their opinions. “I’d say you should say what you think; you just have to be confident with what you say,” he said.

Kelly agrees that students shouldn’t worry about sharing views in class. “I would never want a student’s voice to fall quiet in class because they worry about whether or not I will agree with them,” she said.

If a student is really uncomfortable expressing his views in class, Byer sees an alternative. “I think that it’s OK and appropriate for students to talk to the teacher before and after class and say, ‘This is how I’m feeling,’” he said. “Along those lines, it’s important for teachers to make sure that the climate is safe and conducive to learning, where students feel encouraged to share their opinions.”

Establishing ground rules

Von Handorf agrees that ground rules are important. “I think that when you have a political discussion, teachers know there are going to be strong feelings on both sides,” he said. “Maybe talking about appropriate behavior in class would be a good thing to do. Establish ground rules before you get into a sensitive issue.”

Byer thinks teachers should emphasize the fact that all students have their own opinions. “You may disagree, but it’s about listening and acknowledging our differences,” he said.

Kelly also believes that teachers should referee the political discussions in their classes. “Teachers have a responsibility to ensure both sides of an issue are presented within a classroom,” she said. “We don’t have to agree with one another, but we all should feel respected.”