By: Kate Lechtenberg
Going back to school this fall means talking about politically charged issues with students. For school librarians and teachers, it will be impossible to discuss current events, brainstorm lists of topics for inquiry projects and argumentative writing assignments, or make connections from history to today without wading through some pretty thorny political terrain.
The volatile events of the summer and the mainstreaming of hateful and intolerant agendas have compounded an already hyper-partisan atmosphere to the point where avoiding politics would mean avoiding talking about contemporary life altogether.
Politics in the classroom isn’t new, but it does feel different this year. The violence in Charlottesville coincided with the back to school rush, and our nation’s violent partisan reality looms as a silent force in many teachers’ and students’ minds.
I wrote about my efforts to avoid “political seepage” in my own classroom shortly after the election. As I head back to school this fall, I’m filled with disgust and outrage for the acts of intolerance and violence that have dominated our news —acts which too many people in power have empowered through their refusal to speak out or through coded support.
While it would be easy to fall back into the sarcasm and offhanded comments that can poison a classroom or library culture, I need to channel my disgust, outrage and fear to make deliberate choices about how to discuss current events and political issues in the classroom.
So here’s my list of go-to resources for making deliberate choices to support tough talk about controversial issues in classrooms and libraries. Take a look, try them out, and add your own ideas in the comments!
- Your school’s “Teaching Controversial Issues” policy. Many schools have them, and it’s important to know that the official policy says. For example, the “Teaching Controversial issues” policy in the Iowa school district where I most recently worked has a very robust policy that supports teachers’ right to express their personal opinions during discussions, as long as it is clearly situated as one opinion within a variety of viewpoints. Every policy is different, and teachers and librarians should ask questions about any part of the policy that seems unclear. For example, if I worked in Charlottesville City Schools, I would ask for clarification about this sentence in the Charlottesville policy: “The Superintendent will establish a committee, as needed, to approve the inclusion of issues that may be considered controversial and determine the methods or strategies of the material being taught to students.”
- Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning, “Teaching Controversial Topics.” This brief resource engages teachers in reflection about their beliefs about teaching controversial issues and presents various philosophical approaches, including additional resources.
- The Environmental Issues Forum. A recent blog post by school librarian Connie Williams provides a great introduction to this great resources for supporting deliberative discussions.
- Articles and books that make the case for tough classroom talk. Start with “The Case for Contentious Curriculum,” an April 2017 article in The Atlantic based on Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson’s book The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools. English teachers will appreciate Cindy O’Donnell-Allen’s Tough Talk, Tough Texts, and Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy’s The Political Classroom presents a framework for nonpartisan political education based on their mixed methods research.
- Recent articles about the non-neutrality of libraries. “Beyond Ignorance” in Inside Higher Ed and “Never neutral: Critical librarianship and technology” in American Libraries are a great place to start.
- Teaching resources from media and education organizations. Countless organizations have offered resources in the wake of Charlottesville, and The New York Times is also collecting stories from teachers who are teaching about Charlottesville. (On the other hand, here’s a teacher who has decided not to teach about Charlottesville.) Here are a few:
- Social media hashtags. Share crowdsourced resources on Twitter by following #charlottesvillesyllabus and #charlottesvillecurriculum and #neverneutral
- Add your favorite resources in the comments!
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.