Student-led Civics Case: Political Discussion Project


The teacher wanted to support his students in developing their capacity for civil discourse. First, the class studied how the U.S. has become an increasingly ideologically polarized nation. They identified the challenges that an increasingly polarized media pose to American democracy. Students then examined their own family’s values and their family’s habits regarding political activity and dialogue. When students expressed cynicism regarding the possibility of dialogue creating change, the class listened to the Daryl Davis NPR interview in which Davis discusses his work changing the hearts and minds of KKK members. 

Thereafter, students learn skills for civil dialogue and eventually move past the political “echo chamber” in the news media to understand people with differing political viewpoints. They then choose a current issue of interest to them to research with the purpose of interviewing their family members about that topic. Students craft their own interview questions and their peers provide edits and feedback. In this class, the students were asked to conduct their interviews over the Thanksgiving break, documenting the responses. Students held class discussions afterwards to share what they learned, writing a final reflective piece to pull together their experiences and to demonstrate their own understanding of why rebuilding healthy civic discourse is an example of civic action. This case is originated from a political discussion project

Context: 11th/12th grade Government Class at a suburban high school. 

Project Timeline: 3-4 weeks within a yearlong government class.




Stage 1: Examining Self and Civic Identity

Question 1: Why does it matter to me? 

Students examined topics that mattered to them most and about which they wanted to talk with their family. They reviewed where those issues placed them and their families on the political spectrum. Students thought about the question “Why does this issue matter to me?” as they contemplated their future conversations with family.

Stage 2: Identifying an Issue

Question 5: How do we make it easy and engaging for others to join in?

After students chose an issue, they began thinking about what their family members would think about this political conversation project. Students strategized how to make it easy and engaging for their families to join in the conversation.

Stage 3: Research and Investigation

Question 3: How do I make it about more than myself?

Students initially researched multiple topics, and then refined their chosen issue. They identified points of controversy and how to deal with controversies within their family conversations. They also dug into a little bit of the history of their family’s political background and where it came from.

Stage 4: Developing an Action Plan

Question 3: How do I make it about more than myself?

Question 4: Where do we start?

Having identified their issue, students created interview questions for their family members. Before going out to conduct their interviews, students submitted their questions to one another for feedback. As part of their interview plan, students explained why they chose their interviewee, what questions they would ask, and the setting in which they would conduct their interview. They teacher helped students to frame their questions in ways that their interviewee would find approachable and interesting.

Stage 5: Taking Action  

Question  6: How do we get wisdom from crowds?

Question 7: How do we handle the downside of crowds?

Students were encouraged to engage in respectful dialogue while mastering listening and interviewing skills and to learn how to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue with people who have differing political beliefs. They worked on developing the capacity to hear differing views without immediately reacting.

Stage 6: Reflecting and Showcasing

Question 10: How can we find allies? 

Students discussed their interviews in small groups and as a whole class.  Some students had expressed anxiety about bringing up controversial topics, but at the end of the unit, almost all of them said they had a positive experience. Many of my students entered the project with trepidation but came out pleasantly surprised by the civility they found. Many family members also expressed their appreciation for the assignment and said they felt it was a positive bonding experience for their family.  



* The DESE owns the copyrights to this case and related materials. We represent this case on this side by courtesy of the DESE.