Jennifer Richardson is a Florida FuelEd Teacher Ambassador, focusing on 6th-12th grade Social Studies and English.
As a Civics educator in an online setting, I often have to navigate tricky waters. In my case, I am a Civics teacher in the state of Florida. Florida is a swing state, and we’ve got a hotly divided population. We just concluded one of the most contentious election cycles of all time. As much as I’d love to bury my head in the sand and avoid all of these discussions, it’s my responsibility as a Civics educator to discuss the issues that help individuals form and shape their political ideologies and affiliations. Students have to know party platforms and the types of issues that may lead a person to identify with one party over the other.
Since my classes are comprised of students who live throughout the state of Florida, the diversity of our state is reflected in the classroom. While brick-and-mortar schools tend to be pretty homogeneous, online schools offer students an amazing opportunity to become much more globally aware, and to make friends with other students completely unlike them. I encourage my students to participate in my synchronous class connect sessions as much as possible. I have a responsibility to expose my students to different perspectives and to the understanding that the world is full of a variety of valid points of view. This allows them to make informed decisions with all of the necessary information and, hopefully, better citizens in the long run.
With that said, I’d like to offer three tips for dealing with difficult topics in the online classroom:
1. Know thyself (and thy students).
When I log into my online classroom with a number of students throughout the state of Florida from a variety of ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, I lack the ability to see all of their faces at once. I can’t gauge a quick response and know when to soften the blow of one of my own opinions. In fact, if I boldly share a viewpoint that some find controversial, they may walk away from the computer that very moment. This is a great way to quickly alienate a student and make them feel as though you are against them. As a teacher, this is the last thing I’d ever want to do! So, if you are going to teach Civics online, know thyself. Know your strong opinions and be mindful about keeping them to yourself.
Secondly though, know thy students. I have many students who are first- or second-generation immigrants. While my first responsibility is to educate, my second responsibility as a Civics educator is to protect. It’s tough to talk about an issue that directly impacts some of your students, while other students are blissfully unaware. They may unintentionally say something really hurtful without realizing that they are talking about a kid in their own class. I’m always careful to remind students at the beginning of any difficult discussion that we have students who are directly affected by this issue. We have students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. We have children of police officers, children of the incarcerated, children from rural areas, children from urban areas, children of majority faiths, and children of minority faiths. We have to know our students, have respectful discussions and protect them.
2. Maintain Balance.
In line with the previous point, it’s important to maintain balance. In my class, when we are about to debate a topic, I will often let students select the point of view they’d like to support. For example, I may ask students to raise their hands if they would like to argue in favor of healthcare reform and then choose a volunteer. Then, I ask for someone to argue against healthcare reform and select a volunteer. At that point, I do something very tricky: I make them swap. Not only does this tend to prevent students from devolving into angry debate, but it really stretches their minds to make them think about a different point of view. What does the opposing side really think? Do they have any valid points? How would I defend their ideology if I were forced to do so? Looking at issues from multiple perspectives is a reliable way of keeping your brain in shape! Also, the point is not to change your opinion. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the thoughts and ideas of the opposition, you can defend your own perspective much more fully and strengthen your point of view.
3. Respect the Parents.
Every time we’ve hit on a hot topic in class, I wrap up the discussion by saying, “We’ve started this talk in here. Now, go discuss it with your parents.” It’s never my goal to indoctrinate kids to a certain point of view. Like my students, these parents are from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of beliefs, and even if you don’t happen to agree with them, you have to respect them. I’m a mom, too. I love the ways that teachers engage with my kids and have the opportunity to influence them, but when it comes down to it, I want my kids to talk about the big stuff with me. I want the same for my students and their families. I never want to undermine them because I know that’s not what’s best for their kids, and I know that we are partners in this world of virtual education. So as a Civics educator, remember your responsibility to the parents of the students you teach. Send them to mom or dad with issues to discuss, and never denigrate their parents for seeing the world differently than you do.
Last night we reached the conclusion of what has been a bitter battle in our country. My responsibility to my students remains unchanged, regardless of the results. We will continue to debate, discuss, and dialogue. We’ll model civility, listen to those with opposing views, and learn from one another. I am confident that I’m pouring into a generation of compassionate, thoughtful young people with diverse views and perspectives who together will make big contributions to the melting pot that is our nation.
This morning, I sent the following message to my students:
Good Morning Students & Learning Coaches!
After a very late, long night, the United States of America has elected a new President, Donald Trump. Since Florida is a pretty accurate reflection of our country, I imagine half of you are very happy, and half of you are very sad.
Now it’s time for us to come together and move forward from what has been a very bitter and difficult election cycle. Year after year, I am always impressed with the wisdom, grace, and civility of my students. I know this year is the same. Those of you who are feeling like winners will win with humility and grace, and those of you who are feeling like losers will step up and continue to engage the process and the country and figure out how to move forward.
Whether you’re feeling great or terrible, we are one nation, and we are one class. We have lots of different thoughts, opinions, and backgrounds, but we respect one another. We are kind to one another. We are compassionate toward one another. For that, I am so proud of all of you.
Congratulations to President Elect Trump.
Congratulations to you, my students, on learning how our government works at such a young age and having the opportunity in the very near future to have your voices heard. Don’t take that privilege for granted when your time comes!
What a wonderful world it will be when these well-informed, respectful kids are discussing things with people who are wholly different than them on Facebook! They will put us to shame, I guarantee it.
Florida Fuel Education Civics Teacher