Strategies for Teachers Who Want to Have Real Conversations with Students

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There’s a huge move right now to intimate teachers into avoiding classroom conversations about topics that some deem controversial or “too political.” Many teachers know that not only can we take up such topics, we should take up such topics, and–frankly–we can only do our jobs right by taking such topics up. 

In fact, saying some topics are “too political” is itself a political statement. It’s what educator William Lutz would have called “doublespeak” (drawing on George Orwell) which is also the name of his hugely important book that was published just as I started teaching in 1990.

History, literature, science, music, mathematics, languages, and more are replete with controversy, including and especially issues of race and equity. To call this content “too political” is to attempt to turn teaching into indoctrination. (Yes, those calling us indoctrinators are actually the ones who are really indoctrinating. This is projection, and it’s one of the main strategies being used against teachers these days.) In fact teachers are always political, whether we want to believe it or not.

We can get past this. We can and must teach our students what they need to know. Students of color must learn content that will help them feel empowered, so they can fight against their own unfair oppression; white students must learn content that makes them aware of the kinds of unearned privilege they enjoy, so they can live more honest, ethical lives and work toward a more fair world.

“Feb 12, 2009” by SupportPDX is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But many teachers are legitimately afraid to rock the boat by taking up such topics in schools, and the pressure to do so is making things worse. And, since so many people who go into education are already natural rule-followers, this pressure can be very difficult to resist. So how can good teachers fight this? Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Strategies for Teaching Truth

Choose classic literature (even just excerpts) that can raise issues of race and equity subtly. Conservatives tend not to resist teaching texts by white authors that have a long history in middle and secondary classrooms. Teachers can choose these strategically to encourage students to raise social issues that teachers may not be able to raise directly. For some fantastic information on exactly this strategy, check out Disrupt Texts, a website developed by four super-teachers that includes such information about To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, The Crucible, and more. 

Teachers have an obligation to take up topics that students raise. So set the conditions such that so-called controversial topics are RAISED BY your students. Don’t raise issues directly, but rather put students in groups and focus them on particular passages in texts, or ask them to bring in contemporary texts from other genres (such as newspapers or websites of think tanks) that they think relate to the literature you are studying and let them bring up topics for small-group and class discussion. When students ask you for information about those, help them find it. Help them clarify and understand the issues they are asking about. You can even mention that the curriculum doesn’t raise the questions, but since “you students have raised them, let’s discuss.” In really hostile schools, simply tell students that they are not allowed to discuss these topics in school, which will rightly irritate students and also has the benefit of being true.

Read literary texts about resistance. There are many out there. Let students make their own connections between what they are reading and the social contexts of today.

Use literature about white people to raise issues about equity, unfair labor, and other social issues. Just because people of color often get the worst unfair treatment doesn’t mean that many white people don’t also suffer from unfairness. Use the perspectives of different white characters to raise issues of ethics with your students. Ask them to write from the perspectives of privileged and unprivileged characters in the texts. Then ask students if there are people today who suffer from these same unfair constraints. That will open the discussion to more than just poorly-treated white characters.

This is Galling

Yes, it’s galling to have to be so passive about raising important issues with students, but we have to acknowledge that not all teachers can educate directly on these matters without suffering such blow-back that their jobs are in danger. Using strategies like the above are ways teachers can influence their students without being accused of being political or indoctrinating students. Channel your righteous indignation into teaching for change, passively if necessary.

Even if you teach in a progressive district where students are allowed to ethically explore real truths, sometimes a passive strategy is a good method. Also, it’s not a bad idea to let students learn how to use such strategies to raise issues that matter to them in hostile contexts. These kinds of strategies are crucial when one is resisting domination of one kind or another.

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