by Joan Blades
In theory our education system was designed to give us an educated electorate. Yet somehow among eligible voters, 18 to 24 year olds are the least likely to vote.
Maybe one cause is a lack of political discussion in classrooms. And this absense is understandable, considering how hard it is for teachers to encourage talk about politics in the classroom without getting pushback. Parents don't want their children to be given biased information. Teachers don't want to offend anyone in the classroom, or create divisions among their students. Since we live in a world were we are increasingly seeing news only from either the left or right and our society seems to be more and more divided on political issues, what is a teacher to do?
Good news. Teachers now have tools so they and their students can talk about politics, making sure that all sides are covered and that everyone is respected. Take a look at the new "Elections and Relationships" program by AllSides for Schools, created by AllSides.com in partnership with Living Room Conversations. It provides a smorgasbord of online tools, discussion guides, background materials and current news from multiple perspectives that teachers can integrate into their curriculum.
Kristin Montville of Rising Tide Charter School in Plymouth, Massachusetts has been using AllSides.com for two years, even before there was a formal AllSides for Schools program. "We look at media bias, personal bias, and cognitive bias - we use the news page to analyze different news sources' reporting of the same issues."
Providing materials that are balanced is not the only challenge, political exchange is increasingly negative and disrespectful. High school students are taught how to debate - identify two sides - and argue until a winner and loser are established. However, we know most issues have many shades of gray and that win/win solutions are more sustainable than win/lose. It is important that our children and our citizenry understand that win/lose debate is not necessarily the best way to have conversations about differences. The AllSides for Schools program guides students and teachers into conversations that allow for win/win.
When we teach children to engage in a respectful and thoughtful way we positively impact the quality of conversations and potential outcomes, and we support social emotional learning. They learn that differences need not divide us and that respectful discourse is a more effective way of engaging with others than positional thinking and debating. The consequences of learning these skills are far reaching -- from reducing bullying to laying the foundation for healthy relationships and learning to problem-solve using the creative tension of differences. AllSides for Schools starts by exploring the value of good relationships so that a foundation of respectful engagement allows for truly productive discussion of different points of view.
Science has established that feelings are more influential in decision making than facts. We also know that once people care about each other they hear things in a very different way. Grounding students in the power of respectful engagement and valuing differences sets them up with a refresher in relationship skills that will serve them well when working together in class and outside of class. These qualities will also prepare them to be the kind of voters and leaders our country needs.
Joan Blades is founding partner of Living Room Conversations, co-founder of MomsRising.org & MoveOn.org as well as co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace: Choose When, Where and How to Work and Boost the Bottom Line & The Motherhood Manifesto. Joan and Living Room Conversations recently partnered with John Gable at AllSides to create and run AllSides for Schools.