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Conversations Across Differences

Civic education expert Meira Levinson on how educators can confront polarization and create space for open conversations about the election and beyond

November 6, 2020
Bright-colored silhouettes on 2 sides of dividing line

After an incredibly close presidential election, tensions are running high as many Americans across the political spectrum feel their way of life is at stake. In the face of this growing polarization, schools remain places where people of all beliefs and backgrounds come together. Educators, now more so than ever, need to navigate these different beliefs, finding a way to lead their classroom and school communities effectively and responsibly, creating safe spaces for honest and productive conversations.

We asked political philosopher and civic education expert Meira Levinson to weigh in on how teachers and school leaders can guide students and school communities who may feel unmoored by the unsettled election and political polarization.

What advice would you give to an educator so that they can be an effective and responsible voice for kids and families at this time?

One of the things teachers should do is some prework with themselves. They should think about where their own thoughts and emotions are right now. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this is a time when we are all on tenterhooks. So a part of it is reflecting for oneself on what we feel capable of talking about with young people — what we can talk about in a way that will help them understand what’s going on, help them gain some sense of what may happen, and the extent to which we are prepared to help them process their own emotions and the emotions at home. Teachers also need to know where to draw the line and be clear with ourselves and our students on where we just don’t feel comfortable or capable of going right now.

At the same time, given our current situation under COVID, teachers are perhaps the only adults children have access to outside of their families. Especially for children who have different viewpoints from others in their household or who are concerned about or confused by what their family members are saying, teachers can be a helpful sounding board for students; we can help provide information, possibly affirmation, and reassurance. Of course, even this goes only so far. We can’t give false reassurance; in some cases, too, the ways students may want to be reassured may not align with our own political beliefs or values about what should be reassuring.

The United States has become more polarized, even at the family and neighborhood level, so one of the important things we can do as educators is to help open students up to understand the wide variety of perspectives, life experiences, and beliefs that exist in this amazing, diverse country of ours. We can help students understand why what may seem obvious to them and the people they know and love, may not seem obvious to others and, therefore, why it is we’re in this situation.

It’s also important to know this is not (yet) a breakdown in democracy. What we’re seeing thus far is democracy at work. We had incredible turnout of people who cared about the future of the U.S. and about the ways in which the American political system and elected officials could make a difference for our country, states, and cities. That demonstrates a belief in the U.S. political system and in democracy that we should not take for granted.

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"The United States has become more polarized, even at the family and neighborhood level, so one of the important things we can do as educators is to help open students up to understand the wide variety of perspectives, life experiences, and beliefs that exist in this amazing, diverse country of ours."

Schools are often community focal points. How can principals think about guiding school communities?

The instinct of many leaders is to try to tamp down on conflict, to set aside things that may divide us or heighten emotions and that appear to be extraneous to our direct work. I would advise principals not to fall prey to that instinct. For so many people, this feels like an election that has implications for their safety, their basic rights, their place in the world. For many of us, we really do feel as if these aren’t just policy differences at stake. These are differences about whether or not we feel welcomed or included as Americans. I don’t think school leaders should say or can say to keep politics outside the school door, because that’s like saying keep yourself outside the school door.

At the same time, principals do need to keep people focused on remembering the common purposes that bring us together in education and in schools. We have a common purpose to help young people in our care learn and thrive. We can collectively deploy our expertise to help children and families learn and thrive as best we can.

I also think, frankly, we all have an obligation to help preserve American democracy. A large part of that is building a commitment to democracy and democratic values, principles, and practice. That’s something we can and should collectively rally around. Principals can talk about the ways in which we each do that with each other, and how we do that in our classrooms with students. They need to set the tone and create a school culture in which everybody does feel welcome. Be really clear in communication about what the values and principles are at the school, and how those will be upheld even as we see a lot of partisan division and discord in the broader nation.

Even if a community isn’t particularly polarized, conversations around the election can still be difficult. How can educators guide these conversations so they feel safe and are also productive?

One is for teachers to acknowledge the interplay of emotion and cognition. As students try to make sense of what’s going on, it’s important that they can process and understand facts, ideas, evidence — what we often treat as objects of “academic” study; they also need to be able ask questions if they’re confused or heard someone say something they’re not sure is right. This is the heart of learning. But we also need to acknowledge for ourselves and our students that we are all emotionally invested in this as well. The work students are doing in class is going to trigger our brains and our hearts. That’s natural, but important to acknowledge. One way to do so is to teach students specific techniques for self-regulation and for engaging with others.

Teachers also need to set strong ground rules around these conversations and explain why those rules are there as a way of enabling a productive conversation in which everyone can learn, contribute, and feel like a safe, full member of the community.

Finally, it can be helpful for teachers to share some common texts, facts, pieces of evidence, or articles as the basis for conversation. This is because not only do we have people with different values and opinions, but we also have different reference points. It can help to have a more productive conversation if everyone is on the same page. Even if there are differences of opinion, ideology, and identity, there is a common basis for discussion. Academic grounding is at the heart of “brave spaces,” which is ideally what we will be able to create for our students so we can all learn, grow, and thrive together.

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