With Politics Front and Center

New tools to help educators and support students in controversial scenarios

By Leah Shafer, on January 20, 2017 8:59 AM
With Politics Front and Center: New tools to help educators and support students in controversial scenarios #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

For teachers, principals, and policymakers, the new norms accompanying the Trump Administration mean having to grapple almost daily with ethical dilemmas about free speech, empathy and perspective-taking, and the role of public schools. Professor of Education Meira Levinson and a team of Harvard graduate students have developed three case studies to help, exploring questions about whether and how to accommodate divisive but politically endorsed speech, how to handle student protests, and how to manage controversy and critical thinking in your classroom.

Download the Case Studies

Guidance for a New Climate

“It's tough for teachers to know how to enforce standards for speech and behavior that the president-elect himself systematically undermines,” according to Levinson. “Students who say and do the exact same things as President Trump literally violate many districts' and states' anti-bullying laws. Some even violate federal civil rights statutes.

How should they draw the line between freedom of speech and speech that qualifies as bullying or harassment?

“These challenges have always been present for teachers,” continues Levinson, a political philosopher and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “but they are definitely heightened in the current political climate.”

For example, one of the new case studies designed to examine these challenges, called “Walling Off or Welcoming In?” poses questions about how to create a safe and empathetic school culture while respecting freedom of speech. In the story, a group of faculty members at a K-8 school discuss several recent quandaries: A seventh grader whose family voted for Trump is ostracized by her friends, while first graders are using playtime to build a wall to “keep the Mexicans out.”

The educators debate what to do: Should they simply report the seventh grader’s friends as bullying, as they are legally required to do? Or should they teach her friends to be accepting of different political ideologies, while also exploring the reasons why her peers may feel angry and threatened? Should they teach first graders to welcome all people regardless of nationality — or is doing so imposing a certain political perspective, something public school teachers have a duty not to do? How should they draw the line between freedom of speech and speech that qualifies as bullying or harassment?

Deep Listening, Critical Questioning

“These case studies provide teachers with opportunities to explore relevant issues in a context outside of their immediate reality,” says Laura Burgos, a former principal now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at HGSE. They provide a nuanced, yet neutral, analysis of issues teachers are already facing, opening the door to honest conversations.

“Educators understandably want to protect their students. But they also have legal and ethical obligations to respect students' political freedom of expression, as well as obligations not to impose their own political viewpoints on their students.” 

Educators can explore the cases in multiple ways — discussing them in small groups, acting them out, or responding to them in coaching sessions. The idea is to “engage in deep listening and critical questioning with others,” says Burgos.

Each case includes a facilitators’ guide, with essential questions, goals, and professional development plans. Each presents other activities, such as using the case at PTO meetings to engage families in civil discourse, revising the case to include new opinions, or discussing the case alongside an agreed-upon list of your school’s values. Finally, the cases provide a list of resources for educators to learn more about the issues discussed and to bring that knowledge into their school culture.

“Educators understandably want to protect their students, to keep them safe and supported to learn,” says Levinson. “But educators also have legal and ethical obligations to respect students' political freedom of expression, as well as obligations not to impose their own political viewpoints on their students.” Noticing when these responsibilities compete — and grappling with that contention — can help teachers better serve their students.

Additional Resources

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Faculty in this article

Meira Levinson

What are societies' obligations to their most vulnerable members: children and members of oppressed groups? Meira Levinson works with scholars, policymakers, educators, parents, activists, and students themselves to generate compelling new answers and empowering practices to this age-old question.