Tag: discussion

Politics in the Classroom

In the midst of some intense political happenings in Washington, DC, it seems appropriate to ask: how does a teacher responsibly and ethically handle, or remember regarding, politics in the classroom?

Here is the fruit of my research:

  • Recognize your own positions. We all develop beliefs in response to our perceptions, feelings, interpretations of the past, interpretations of our own lives, and what we hear from family, friends, colleagues, the media, social media, our culture, etc. We must know our own positions and values, the evidence and causes behind them, and be conscious of how these positions and values affect our teaching and presentation of material.
  • Remember and acknowledge how our values affect our course design and lesson planning.  If we talk about slaves, we are influenced by a Marxist approach to history that encourages discussion of the subaltern. Depending on how we structure the lesson or where the conversation goes, issues of race and economics will be involved.
  • There is an uneven power dynamic between students and teachers. Most teachers develop the assignments for the students. Teachers evaluate and grade students. Ethical teachers cannot give points to students with whom they agree politically.
  • There is a difference between “settled issues” and “open issues.” Franke Wilmer uses the example as the Holocaust as a settled issue. It happened; it’s very sad a historical fact. Diane Hess uses the example of climate change. It is a settled issue that the climate is changing, but the appropriate response to climate change is the open question. Similarly, regarding an issue we might encounter in a Latin or Classics class, it is a settled issue that rape is bad, but the punishment for the rapist seems to be at the core of the debate raging today. It is important to differentiate between these for ourselves, and for our students. It may foster more constructive dialogue and it help us recognize that we are more similar to one another than our current polarization implies. Wilmer, though, acknowledges that drawing the line between “settled” and “open” can be difficult.
  • Focus on issues, not events. Often, we do not have enough knowledge of specific, very recent events, such as a police officer shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, to discuss them adequately or fairly; but we do have sufficient knowledge to focus on issues, such as racial inequality, the militarization of the police, police wearing body cameras, etc. This will also help students see the historical context and systemic issues behind current events.
  • There is a difference between “public”/”civic” values and “private” values. To quote Tom Huddleston, “The kind of values that characterise a pluralist democracy, such as ours [referring to the UK, but the same applies to the USA], include: social justice; political equality; tolerance; human rights; respect for the rule of law; and a commitment to negotiation and debate as the ideal way of resolving public conflict. This difference [between public and private values] allows a distinction to be made between the values that may be legitimately taught in schools–indeed, which schools have a duty to teach–and those that are more properly the province of the home, particular interest groups and religious or political parties. Thus, … [teachers] may quite legitimately condemn and prohibit injustices which contravene our community values, such as racism and human rights abuse – wherever they take place.”
  • Provide all points of view regarding an issue, and present them in a neutral manner. You can play ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge what seems like an early emerging one-sided consensus, or encourage students to share and explain their own thoughts. You can invite a variety of community members into the classroom (especially if they are parents who are worried about you indoctrinating their children).
  • Do not establish yourself as the sole authority on a subject. This will demonstrate your open mind and the value of other opinions, and it will help students see that there are a variety of opinions.
  • Ask students to actively engage in a discussion of the issues. To quote Tom Huddleston again, “If children become accustomed to discussing their differences in a rational way in the primary years, they are more likely to accept it as normal in their adolescence. Citizenship education helps equip young people to deal with situations of conflict and controversy knowledgeably and tolerantly. It helps to equip them to understand the consequences of their actions, and those adults around them. Pupils learn how to recognize bias, evaluate argument, weigh evidence, look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for the things they say or do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.” In other words, do not just teach the issues, but teach the skills of being a good citizen.
  • Have rules for discussion. Students should be respectful and attentive, and they should approach the discussion with open minds. Opposing opinions should not be dismissed but respectfully interrogated so that they are better understood. The discussion should be based on fact-checked evidence, and arguments should be critiqued on their merits (not on whether or not the teacher agrees). Teaching students these rules for less controversial, political issues will establish a safe, respectful environment for discussing more hot button issues.
  • We must model approaching issues with an open mind. Do not reveal your own preferences unconsciously through facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, choice of respondents during a discussion, etc. Do not make sarcastic comments or jokes that are political or partisan in nature–that polarizes students.
  • If you share your opinion, make it clear that it is your opinion. State that it is “in my opinion.” Step out from behind a podium. State that students must make up their own minds.
  • Do not focus on cynicism and fear. Find upbeat messages and the good side of what may seem like crazy times, and share them with your students.
  • Are students initiating the discussion because they want to talk about it? or are you? There are differing levels of comfort that come with each cause.
  • To what extent are your students, their families, and their communities personally affected by an issue? Emotional levels will run high or low depending on your answer, or you may need to devote more or less time to issues that directly affect students before their learning can take place.
  • Should students be allowed to opt out of the discussion if it is particularly hard for them due to their religious background or personal past? Considerations similar to those for trigger warnings apply, on the one hand. On the other hand, Paula McAvoy mentions that we don’t let students opt out of tests, democratic discussion allows participants to walk away, and democracies rely on participants overcoming their discomfort regarding discussing their opinions.
  • Is the issue something all students ought to know about, regardless of whether it is in the curriculum?
  • We are a very politically polarized country at the moment. Current political polarization may mean that some comments are interpreted as political even though both sides agree on the idea (despite caricatures on the media or social media) or even though you did not mean them to be political, and it may mean that emotions will run high during discussions. However, respectful discussion is what is missing in our national discourse, so it may be beneficial to encourage it in our schools–to teach students how to be good citizens.
  • Remember there are difficult balances to maintain here, and success will not be immediate with every group of students. Don’t give up trying. It is important and engaging to connect Classics to the modern world, and to acknowledge the modern world’s effects on our perceptions of the ancient world. These attempts show why Classics matters. But the questions of whether and how political to be–that’s up to you, your students, and your administration.


Socratic Seminars

We often talk about discussing the main themes of a text in class, but what does this mean? Are we telling the students the themes and providing evidence? Are they providing evidence for the themes we identify for them? Are students identifying the themes and the evidence? Is it a lecture or a large-group conversation? How much are students actually understanding about the texts? Which of these is our goal and which of these is what happens?

The Socratic Seminar method aims to get students actively involved in conversations about the text and finding the evidence to support their assertions. The teacher’s role is less “sage on stage” and more “traveling companion on a journey of discovery” (or at least the traveling companion who might have the map). The goal of the conversation is that students to develop an answer to a particular question as a class. Many of the insights of this method can be adapted to improve all class discussions.

How it works

  • First, explain what will be expected of students in the seminar and why it is a good method of instruction. This may be a good time to tell your students the rules of the Socratic seminar: ground all discussion in the text, address comments to everyone (not to a neighbor or the teacher/facilitator who should sit at the same eye-level as the students), listen to each other carefully, respond to each other’s comments respectfully and with the goal of developing and improving upon interpretations (not tearing down other students or their ideas), don’t raise hands, don’t interrupt, don’t dominate the conversation, be bold enough to offer your interpretation but be flexible enough to accept other students’ ideas, and ask for clarification if a comment is confusing. Everyone should also sit in a circle facing each other.
  • Second, students read a text or watch a film, while taking notes or annotating the text. You should make sure that students understand how and why to annotate texts or that they are given something to help them think about the text. You could give them reading questions, a worksheet, or ask them to complete a prompt: “I am confused about…” or “I want to talk about…” or “This passage was interesting…”
  • At the beginning of class, it might be beneficial to review the behavior expectations for a Socratic seminar, and it is necessary to establish a Big Question to be answered by the discussion. This can ask about the text’s main/major theme, a moral dilemma in the text, the author’s purpose or perspective, the meaning of a phrase, renaming the text, or the most important sentence/paragraph. The Big Question could focus on a skill you are trying to teach or the major topic of discussion among scholars about the text, but remember many of these questions are interconnected. For example, in a discussion about the Antigone, you might ask “What is the major dilemma in the play?” Based on the play and the majority of scholarship, I would expect the discussion would focus on ‘Should Antigone follow the natural law to bury her brother or her state’s law to not bury her brother the traitor? Should Creon have made her choose and enforced the temporal law unyieldingly?’ This discussion will require students to identify the most important passages related to this theme.
  • At the beginning of the discussion, I have found it is very helpful for students to summarize what happened–maybe discussing this in a smaller group. The summary helps students remember what the text is about and who is important. In our example: they need to understand who Antigone and Creon are, and what they did. (This is the time for guided questions, when we are low on Bloom’s Taxonomy.)
  • During the discussion, students raise various ideas and hopefully move to a sound interpretation supported by the text and agreed upon by the class. As the facilitator, you can ask various (not guided) questions to help the conversation: where do you find evidence for that in the text? Can you clarify what you said? Is there something unclear in the text? How does that relate to what someone else said? Who hasn’t talked yet? Who has a different perspective? Has anyone changed their mind? You could also summarize or ask someone to summarize what has been said already. Allow there to be silence for awhile so students warm up or find answers or are more willing to talk.  Naturally, some of these questions can be planned in advance or I like to have a list of these broad prompts in front of me.
  • At the end of the discussion, debrief students by asking if their knowledge has improved or if they followed the rules of the discussion, or by sharing your thoughts on the discussion, or why the Big Question or theme of the text is important. You could also ask students to relate their interpretation of the text to the modern world, or to offer their own opinions about the main theme of the text (because they just spent the whole time analyzing the text)–what law should Antigone have followed? This debriefing could be in the form of further conversation, a short in-class writing task, a blog post at home, or a more extensive writing assignment.


  • Students are actively engaging with the text, and so learning about it better. You can also encourage students to ground it in the text a lot more.
  • It models how to have a productive and respectful conversation among people with varying viewpoints.  Importantly, it established ground rules for doing so.
  • Even if you don’t follow the method perfectly, it suggests some ways to ask questions that make students more active and more free, or that lead to more fruitful and engaging discussions, than if you only asked guided/pointed questions.


  • It may not work with every group of students or it might take some students awhile to catch on to this habit.  To mediate this con, be clear about the expectations/rules of the discussion, start using the strategy from the beginning of the term, or gradually make the discussion more complex as the term progresses (just like we would gradually guide our students through Bloom’s Taxonomy throughout the term).  And if it just isn’t working with a group of students, or they just don’t want to talk, find a strategy that does work with them (such as a more guided discussion or more in-class writing).