When and if to Talk to Student About Politics

3002972826_5f146862c0_o.jpgBy Peggy Wuenstel – As the rhetoric around the upcoming election heats up, conversations in the classroom inevitably are peppered with some of what our students are hearing and seeing on the airwaves. It is always a careful line to walk when kids ask you to participate in this exchange. While it is always our responsibility not to present our political opinions as fact to students, it is also our right to have those same opinions.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is to be a consistent, appropriate model of participation in our system of government. I proudly wear my “I Voted” sticker back to class after casting my ballot and welcome their questions about the process. I answer factual questions when I can, and when I can’t, make the promise to find out, just as I would in every other area in which they ask for information. I help them to distinguish between fact and opinion and to consider their sources, even as early as kindergarten. I have fielded a lot of questions this year about why anyone would WANT to be president. We are raising a generation of kids who do not see female or candidates of color as historic, unlikely, or impossible. How encouraging is that?

I am also aware of my role as a role model and the necessity not to use that in inappropriate ways. They know which aging blue mini-van in the parking lot is mine. As it is visible from my classroom, my choice of bumper stickers reflects that caution. They are issue-related, not candidate-specific. I am unabashedly pro-public education, anti-money in politics, and pro-income equality.  I am active politically in the community and the political action chair for my local education association. I have promoted local referenda, campaigned for pro-education school board candidates across the spectrum of elected offices, written opinion pieces, and financially supported individuals and causes I believe in.

My selection as one of Wisconsin’s Teachers of the Year in the turbulent year of 2010 presented me with a new set of responsibilities and directives. I must be the kind of teacher who knows what is happening and participates in the decision making at all levels possible. It has changed my life. Being informed, active, and concerned about the welfare of the others is the kind of role model I want to be for my students.

I was providing a reading lesson to two third graders a few weeks back about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (This was before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, so their engagement surprised me even more than if it had followed the media coverage of his death and resulting controversy about a new appointment to the court.) The online article traced her path from student to justice, but did not thoroughly explain how a justice is selected. Much to my delight, they asked, and the process of presidential nomination and senate confirmation came up. I briefly discussed that this is one of the reasons that it is important to choose a president whose values are those we want on the Supreme Court and how the system of checks and balances is outlined in The Constitution.

One of these students is of Hispanic heritage and the other’s background is African American, although he has been raised by loving Caucasian parents who are educators. The only difference this has ever made is in the need to provide reading selections and lessons that are diverse and inclusive. On this day, they gave me the instruction. V, the first student, said vehemently, “We’d better not pick Trump then. He wants to send all Mexicans back to Mexico and I don’t want to go.” V was born here and his parents run a successful local landscaping business. J, his partner in this reading group replied, “Well. I’m black and he doesn’t like me either.” My teacher radar kicked into high gear, realizing that some kind of explanation was going to be needed.

They provided the direction for our conversation, asking me directly, “Are you voting for Donald Trump?” My response, “It is not my place to tell you who to vote for, or to influence your decisions about things like that. What I can tell you is that when I choose who to vote for in a presidential election, I look for the best leader. That, in my view, is someone who tries to bring people together and make everyone feel like they have an important part to play in making our country work well.” They said in reply, almost in unison: “Then you are not voting for Donald Trump.” My smile was my response.

I like to think about a broader definition of politics when I consider whether or not to discuss it directly with students. They need to have a basic understanding of how schools are funded, how elections work, or don’t work, and their eventual place in it. As a mentor of mine once told me, “It is not my job to tell you what to think, it is to give you something to think about.” And these kids are paying attention to some things. We need to make sure that that partial knowledge doesn’t pass for comprehension of the issues and direct the hard choices that have to be made.

This anecdote from back in the recall election days illustrates the point. While helping a fourth grader complete his Wisconsin government test, he had trouble recalling the first name of Governor Walker. I suggested that he remember the signs he had seen in the community and the ads he had seen on television to help him complete his response. What did he write? Recall. It will forever be a reminder to me that if we want kids to look for the whole story, we have to be willing to tell it in a way that inspires them to be an informed participant in democracy.

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