During my first year of teaching eighth grade writing, I took a gamble on a lesson plan that seemed destined to end badly -- I showed an early debate between the Republican candidates for president.
As you might expect, the students grumbled, wondered why we had to do something so boring and made their case for another video. (As far as I know, this Nemo still hasn't been found.)
They finally settled down and began watching the video, and though I was anxious about whether it would happen, they quickly became absorbed as the candidates spouted their talking points.
After the video, we discussed the debate and took a vote.
If my eighth graders had their way, Ambassador Alan Keyes would have become the Republican candidate for president, with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch finishing second and John McCain third. Coming in dead last was the man who eventually became president, George W. Bush.
Keyes, of course, was a glib and entertaining speaker, while the surprising show of support for Hatch came from one of my students who had lived in Utah and made the case quite eloquently for the only candidate she had heard of before.
During my second year as a teacher, I had the good fortune of being able to teach about the presidential election that never ended, and while some people thought the 2000 election was a nightmare, I found it to be a wonderful time to be teaching, with students who came into class every day wanting to talk about the latest developments in the ongoing battle between whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would take the oath of office.
I have never shied away from bringing politics into the classroom and over the years I have been criticized for bringing issues into the classroom, not by students, parents, or administrators, but by those who read my blog posts and disagree with my views, and automatically assume I am imposing them on my students.
I am not; that is not my job.
Last week, in a Huffington Post blog, Larry Strauss, a high school English teacher and coach, expressed his pride that students could not tell his political leanings and, in fact, thought of him as a Republican though he had never voted for a Republican in his life.
Strauss quite rightly emphasized having the students research the candidates and their stances on the issues:
And so, for example, the students in my class will analyze the stump speeches of both major candidates along with those of some lesser known candidates and when we evaluate the claims and support and utilize factcheck.org to study the art of political deception, we will do so for everyone. We will pick apart the rhetorical strategies of every candidate, use criticalvoter.com to reveal the linguistic tricks of their trade and understand how words can change the world -- or be used to maintain the status quo.
Strauss talks about his colleagues who cannot keep their political viewpoints out of the classroom and try to bring students around to their way of thinking. He disapproves of that approach and so do I.
His method is to be a blank slate, and while I am sure that works for him, he is missing out on a way to connect with students on an even deeper level and show them that even when we disagree on issues, there is no reason we can't discuss those issues amicably. We have an opportunity to teach a powerful lesson about the way public discourse should be handled, but so often is not.
Teachers do not have to be political eunuchs to serve their students well.
My political viewpoints are never front and center in my classroom. I am more interested in hearing what the students think and especially, in how well they express those opinions, both verbally and in writing.
Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, I play devil's advocate in discussions and make them back up their points (and sometimes make them take a closer look about the validity of those points, on both sides).
If students ask me how I feel about an issue, I will quickly tell them and not make a big deal about it. I always stress that the people who are elected or who are running for office are not running to destroy everything that this nation stands for and it is never a battle between good and evil, but between people with differing viewpoints on how to better serve their country.
Hopefully, when the school year has ended, they will understand that you do not have to shout down someone to make your point and that people who disagree you with are not necessarily spawns of Satan.
When they leave my classroom, they won't be brainwashed into believing the same way I believe. Their parents have far more to do with shaping their political beliefs than I, or any other teacher, and that is the way it should be.
The students who leave my classroom feeling the same way I do about issues are the ones who came into my classroom with those same beliefs. As for the ones who disagree with me, every year they leave saddened that they did not have a few more weeks to convince me of the folly of my ways.