“Political Seepage” in Classroom Discourse: An Apology

Academic Freedom, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Professional Ethics

By: Kate Lechtenberg

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent report on the election’s impact noted that about half of the 10,000 teachers surveyed were hesitant to discuss the election in their classrooms. At the same time, we’re seeing increased hate crimes in our schools and communities.

In these politically charged times, librarians and educators on every point of the political spectrum are mobilizing to create and share resources to support the civil discourse essential to maintaining intellectual freedom in our schools and communities. From YALSA’s recent town hall meeting to ALA’s Dec. 15 webinar about student rights, protests and free speech with ACLU of Wisconsin leader Emilio De Torre, we’re rallying together for civil discourse.

Confronting my complicity

In my work as a teacher of pre-service teachers and librarians, I’m taking full advantage of these much-needed resources, and in doing so, I’ve had to confront my own complicity with some of the more pernicious elements of our country’s charged political climate.

So today I apologized to my students.

My apology was prompted by an NPR interview with Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, an interview that has left me feeling implicated in what Hess and McAvoy called “political seepage.” Listening to the interview, I realized that this sort of sarcastic, offhanded comment or joke is a pattern I’ve let creep into our classroom.

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-35-16-amMy comments haven’t been frequent or intentionally partisan lobbying, but if I really look in the mirror, I remember a few offhanded, sarcastic remarks aimed at then-candidate Donald Trump. My students in Reading and Teaching Adolescent Literature at the University of Iowa are pre-service teachers and English majors, and most of them laughed at my lame joke about how appropriate it was for us to discuss Achebe’s Things Fall Apart on the day after the first debate. And I saw many nodding or chuckling ruefully when, after an intense class discussion on the importance and complexity of introducing LGBTQ issues and characters in secondary literature classrooms, I added sarcastically, “because if we don’t create opportunities for students to practice civil discourse about gender and sexuality in the classroom, we’ll end up with more 69-year-old men who make despicable comments and call it ‘locker room talk.’”

Deliberate moves, not sarcasm

Sarcasm is, as John Knowles reminds us in A Separate Peace, “the protest of people who are weak.” When I apologized in class today, I told them that my takeaway from the interview was not that I shouldn’t talk about politics in the classroom, but that I need to be more deliberate and intentional about how and when I bring politics into a discussion.

For example, I could have initiated thoughtful discussion about how Donald Trump and Billy Bush’s words on the Access Hollywood video related to our discussion of civil discourse about sexuality. Instead, I chose the cheap laugh, the one-sided superficial commentary.

It’s painful to admit to creating the sort of subtle insider/outsider division that Hess and McAvoy described because it’s exactly what I’ve been teaching my students not to do. Throughout the semester, we have been exploring the representation of youth in YA literature and the importance of student-centered civil discourse (with the help of Colorado State University professor Cindy O’Donnell-Allen’s book Tough Talk, Tough Texts). We’ve focused on respectful discourse that considers multiple perspectives. But my flippant references to a political candidate gave me all the power of commentary, and I disrespected the class climate we worked to create.

On other days, I have led intentional conversations about politics in our class: We had a brief open discussion on the day after the election, and in a later class, we created mock presidential briefing books with excerpts from diverse YA literature to help President-elect Trump realize his goal of being the president for all Americans. My apology today was a promise to stick with this sort of deliberate discourse in the future, and, I hope, a model for my students and future colleagues of the honest self-critique and open communication that sustains a healthy classroom culture.


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is in her first year of doctoral studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa. After teaching high school English for ten years and working as a school librarian for four years, her research focuses on how affect, emotion, and morality intersect with the structural constraints of educational policies and standards. Kate teaches a young adult literature course for preservice teachers and English majors and a course on collection development for preservice teacher librarians in the School of Library and Information Science, and she is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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