Political Discussion in Classroom

Ben Liberto, who teaches Government in Milford High School, MA, the Ten Questions  framework to facilitate political conversations  in classroom.* Ben was one of the Ten Questions Teacher Leaders.  


Political Affiliations Project

Your assignment is to interview your family members and talk politics with them.  Have a discussion with your parents, guardians, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older siblings, etc. and see what matters most to them.

Some questions to ask:

  1. Why does it [politics] matter to me?
  2. Is there a way to make politics/government about more than myself? (In other words, is there a way to get people involved that doesn’t boil down to the “it’s in my best interests to get involved”)
  3. What do you think are the most important issues facing the United States today?  If you were in charge, how would you propose we fix or address those issues?
  4. Putting cynicism aside, do you think there are any issues that Republicans and Democrats agree on, and if so, which ones?
  5. Most people tend to have a cynical view about politicians (ex. – “all politicians are corrupt and are in it for themselves”) – if you do have such views, what do you think we as a nation can do to elect better people to office?
  6. What, if anything, do you do to try and promote good and effective government at the local, state, or federal level?

Try to speak with as many family members as you can (by the way, this makes for an awesome discussion at Thanksgiving).
Once you’ve collected your information, reflect on their views.  What do you think about your family’s answers?  If you disagreed strongly with any of them, how do you think you and they can come to some sort of compromise?

This assignment will take the form of a narrative, informal essay where you discuss your findings.  You are NOT to share your own political views in this essay – I only want you to examine what your family thinks about politics and reflect on their views.”

Questions 1 and 2 are slightly modified from their original versions in the 10 Questions themselves, but I felt it would help clarify them as my students engaged with their family members.  The goal of this particular assignment is not just to get my students to think and discuss politics with their family members, but also to try and see how to build a dialogue with family members they may disagree with.

Part of my motivation in this assignment is the story of Daryl Davis, the African-American man who has spent much of his life reaching out to members of the KKK and listening to them and talking with them.  He has managed to get many members of the Klan to ultimately renounce their views and that organization, and ultimately I think Davis’ model is how we should all strive to act with people who do not share our views: with open ears and open hearts.  Seeing all of the divisive rhetoric – whether it’s the internet trolls of 4chan or reddit or protestors on the streets – tends to turn us off from politics, and, more to the point, those people aren’t even talking to each other.  They’re talking (yelling, really) over each other, and the goal isn’t civil discourse, but rather simply proving the other side wrong.

So my goal was to get my students talking, and, what better place to start then right at home?  I know political discussions – especially around the holidays – can get very heated, but I felt this was as good a place as any to start.

The assignment clearly states that my students are not to share their own political views.  That’s because I have serious ethical reservations about having my students share their views with me (I suppose this goes to question 2, “How much should I share?”).  I do not share my own political views with my students because I do not want to influence or bias them in such a way – I firmly believe that the best thing I can do as an educator in this regard is to be as objective as I possibly can, and arm them with as much evidence, reason, and critical thinking skills so that they can figure things out for themselves.  I firmly believe that were I to try and indoctrinate them in my own beliefs, I may hold sway over them for a time, but ultimately, they would resent me and my views. 

As of this writing, I don’t have much to report on the project.  I tried holding off this journal as long as possible, but I have run out of time!  The due date for this particular assignment for my Government students (I should mention that they are mostly seniors with a few juniors scattered into the mix) is Monday, December 18th.  The timing isn’t ideal, but I had a couple of other assignments due earlier in the month and I didn’t want to overwhelm them by making this interview assignment due at the same time just so I could meet a deadline.  Still, I am curious as to what my students will report come Monday when they come in.

One of the things I have found frustrating is that my Government classes at Milford High are only one semester long.  While there is some talk of making Government full-year (and incorporating a heavy dose of civics as well), that is still well beyond the horizon.  For now, my time with my current students is rapidly coming to a close (our semester will end in mid-January). 

The only good news I can take away from that is the fact that when my spring semester government classes begin, I will start with the Ten Questions right away.  I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to integrate them beyond my politics assignment, but I have some ideas as to how I can make it part of my students’ weekly news discussions.

Ben Liberto/ Milford High School


* The original post is found here