Leading class discussion in a politically divisive time

When major current events happen, our Social Studies teachers often ask us to pause, reflect and discuss. During such a politically divisive time in the wake of this fall’s elections and a new administration, teachers have been pausing classes for these discussions more than ever.

Mr. Eric Goodson said that it “is crucial for students to see that what they are studying can help them understand the world around them, their place in the world.” He added that “Dana educates citizens of the world. Thus, as a school, it is our responsibility to help students understand and engage that world … [and] to offer opportunities for learning and not just one way of thinking about an issue.” Ms. Heather Panahi shares this opinion and believes that “we bear a responsibility in helping students channel their energy to positive change regardless of their political affiliations.”

Those political affiliations can be a challenge when sharing personal opinions in the classroom. Dana Hall is often characterized as a very liberal school, but there are conservative students, faculty, and staff. Teachers have to create safe space for multiple viewpoints to be expressed and respected in the classroom. Ms. Panahi said that “it’s a slippery slope, and we have to be careful to honor all perspectives,” and Ms. Alexandra Siemon wondered whether the students who don’t speak up during these discussions are just quiet or “are they the ones that disagree?” Mr. Goodson said that in the past he has always had conservative students that jumped into the discussion in his class, but this year, he hasn’t heard much. He said that “those voices, all voices and perspectives, are vital if we want our students to explore a range of perspectives.”

Another struggle Social Studies teachers have with these discussions in class is managing the reality that they have their own opinion too and deciding whether or not to express it. All three teachers agreed that it is hard to keep their own opinions out of the conversation. Ms. Siemon said this is most difficult when “talking about issues of moral right and wrong.” Mr. Goodson believes that he must keep his opinion to himself because as soon as he shares it, “students stop thinking.” He shared a similar concern as Ms. Siemon’s because “he does not feel that all sides are equally valid in debate if the argument on one side is, quite frankly, poor.” So while our teachers are “political animals,” as Ms. Panahi described, they must be careful in sharing for the benefit of the students.

Additionally, the three of them agreed that they, as teachers, must be able to point out facts and falsehoods, but Ms. Siemon expressed concern with her autonomy to do so. She was specifically concerned about possible backlash the school could face if she speaks up in discussions surrounding moral right and wrong. She said that she needs “to know the school has my back,” and she believes it has so far.

Dana Hall strives to be a community that fosters healthy debate and welcomes difference of opinion, and these three Social Studies teachers think these ideals should continue to influence classroom discussion.

Photo: Ms. Panahi, Mr. Goodson, and Ms. Siemon of the Social Studies department. Photo credit: Hannah Robinson.

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