This article was originally published in the Feb 2021 edition of Gifted Education Review
Most school-aged students do not see themselves in politics, and have relegated the entire concept to the land of adulthood. Practical adult responsibilities are often mysteries to students as they leave their public education: How do I buy a car? How do I pay taxes? What about voting? Arguably one of the most important responsibilities as an adult American citizen is voting and registering to vote. After all, election results can impact your ability to buy a car and pay your taxes.
We sometimes forget that engaging in politics is more than simply visiting your polling place once you turn 18. Speaking at a town or city council meeting, contacting your state and national representatives, or just staying informed on political news are all ways to engage with the government. Those are also a few ways to get involved with politics before reaching voting age. Besides preparing young citizens for voting and perhaps someday running for office, getting involved in politics at a young age has wide-reaching benefits. When examining political issues, students can advance their moral development and develop their skills in debate, analysis, argument, and persuasive writing.
We often speak about “politics” as governmental affairs, but we deal in politics in our personal and professional lives too. It is an unavoidable fact that much about politics is about power: who has it, how they use it, and how they treat people/groups without the same level of power. Any system, formal or informal, denotes these groups or individuals as the powerful and powerless, givers and receivers, haves and have-nots. Knowing how to recognize your power in relation to the people around you and use your power for good is a life skill every person should have, regardless of your involvement in government.
General classrooms and history or civics classes are not the only place where politics exist. Politics come into play in the arts (protest music, murals), STEM (research funding, bioethics), and English and literature (historical fiction, censorship). It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that asking students to fundraise for their after school club is an act of politics. Afterall, aren’t they using their political/social power to bring further power/funds to a cause that is important to them?
For more controversial issues, teachers must consider how political they want to be, while protecting their jobs. There may be topics that your school considers “off-limits” and there may be issues that you feel are worth putting up a fight that may cost you politically, or even your job. It is a personal ethical decision whether to adhere to these policies, defy them, or advocate for changing them. After all, there are politics in your workplace as well. However, keep in mind that by refusing to discuss any political or controversial issue, you show your privilege. Unfair, racist, or sexist policies and systems, especially those that affect your students and your classroom, must be called out. If you do choose to take up an issue in your class that could be controversial, consider if you are better off asking for your supervisor’s or principal’s blessing first, or asking for forgiveness later.
Another word of warning: you can share your personal views, but do not push your views on students. They will not respond well, and may see themselves as outsiders in your classroom if they disagree, disconnecting them from their learning. The details of a student’s viewpoint or opinion is much less important than fanning the flames of their engagement in an issue and their ability to articulate their position.
- For the youngest future leaders, recognize and name anytime a student assumes a leadership role, whether formally or informally.
- Emphasize the purpose, power, and responsibilities of the government, not just the roles and systems.
- Harness the power of a child’s sense of fairness. If a student points out an unfair system, big or small, that is an opportunity to talk about power, privilege, and change.
- Engage in their burgeoning senses of morality. Older elementary students typically move from pre-conventional to conventional morality. Acknowledge the advancement from a “What’s in it for me?” mentality to a sense of broader societal norms.
MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS:
- Treat your middle and high school students as voters. According to the Voting Rights Act (2009), regarding the literacy of voters: “any person who has not been adjudged an incompetent and who has completed the sixth grade in a[n accredited] public school in, or a private school … possesses sufficient literacy, comprehension, and intelligence to vote in any election.” (Voting Rights Act, 2009).
- Use a verbal or written debate as part of an assignment, activity, or assessment. Then have students argue the “other side”– not only to deepen their understanding, but to encourage empathy.
- Politics and policies of the school or district may come to light in your classroom. Dress codes, prom policies, and punishments often come up in students’ lives when unfair practices are in place. Encourage students to not just complain, but to take action. If you believe they have the power to make a difference, they will too. For example, if a school program is being threatened, involve students in the school board meetings. They have the most to lose.
- If an issue comes up in local politics that is relevant to your class, have students write letters or emails to their elected officials in support of a cause. For example, a life sciences class could write to the city council defending local wildlife when a new shopping center is being planned. Be careful not to force students to take a certain position– allow students to abstain or write their own letter. Be aware of any personal connections students have to personal politics; a student’s parent could be on city council, or would benefit from the new jobs a shopping center would bring, for example.
- Inspire activism by watching and reacting to the West Wing episode “A Good Day” (Flint & Schiff, 2005) where a group of young activists visits the White House to lobby for child suffrage. It’s powerful to see a young person so eloquently and persuasively argue for their rights– even directly to the president himself. There’s a 4-minute smash cut of the relevant scenes on YouTube.
- The Political Classroom (thepoliticalclassroom.com) has a bevy of resources on politics, particularly useful if law and government aren’t your strong suit.
You may feel as though you are walking a tight line with politics in the classroom, but with some planning and research, you can set your students up for real life beyond graduation day and election day. A country of informed and engaged voters benefits us all.
Flint, C. (Writer), & Schiff, R. (Director). (2005, March 2). A good day. [Television series episode]. In Sorkin, A. (Creator). The West Wing. New York: National Broadcasting Company.
Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S. Code § 10101(c) (2009).