How to Mediate Contentious Political Discussions Among Students

By Patrick Kelley, author of Teaching Smarter

How to Mediate Contentious Political Discussions Among StudentsLike it or not, contentious political discussions are probably going to happen in your classroom this year, even if you’re a math teacher! When they do, how will you react? Language will be loaded and emotions will be on edge when students engage in a political conversation—after all, they are good at imitating what they see on TV and at home. And what do students see when a political issue is raised? They see people talking over each other and throwing personal insults rather than giving reasonable explanations. When politics come into the classroom, educators typically face three challenges:

  1. The discussion will often become personal and no longer be about the issues, and students will attack each other.
  2. Students will repeat inaccuracies, misquotes, and speculations.
  3. Quite frankly, you will hate every minute of the discussion because you will worry about getting a phone call from a parent claiming that you are trying to turn his or her child into a _______ (liberal, conservative, republican, democrat . . . or something worse).

Here are some tips for handling each of these three challenges.

1. The discussion will often become personal and no longer be about the issues, and students will attack each other.

Your job is to keep the focus on the issues and not allow discussions to get personal. How? Begin with a teacher-led discussion regarding the difference between attacking the issue vs. attacking the person.

For example, attacking the person looks like this: “John likes this candidate because he doesn’t understand that the Second Amendment is for his own good.” Attacking the issue looks like this: “The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. That right is important to me because . . .”

Peaceful Conversation Starters for Political DiscussionsPresent these two statements and talk about why the second is less offensive than the first and, more importantly, would lead to a productive and interesting discussion. The key point is to leave personal attacks out of the equation. Give students several more examples to analyze. In each example, show how insults can easily be disguised, such as demonstrated above: “John . . . doesn’t understand . . .” In this example, help students see that a productive discussion is not about John’s understanding (or lack of it) but about the Second Amendment. Take a look at the image on the right for some Peaceful Conversation Starters (click image for a larger view).

2. Students will repeat inaccuracies, misquotes, and speculations.

For example, “If this guy gets into office, he will start a war with Mexico in his first 100 days.”

When you hear something like this, you have an excellent opportunity to teach students how damaging a misquote or speculation can be. Direct a discussion about how misquotes or speculations have hurt the reputations of people students know personally. Have students describe such scenarios in their personal lives and how those scenarios turned out for them.

In addition, this is a great time to explain what it means to quote someone out of context and how the media will often sensationalize what a candidate says. Always allow students to see these concepts unfold in their personal lives. For example, all of us have felt the damage of someone misquoting us to a friend. How much more damage can be done when a political agenda is added to the equation?

On a whiteboard, write several examples showing how politicians have purposefully distorted the facts throughout history. Not only will you teach a much-needed lesson on politics, but it is also quite entertaining to see some of the tactics and quotes from past elections. This politically neutral strategy will help students understand that politics is not always truthful or ethical.

3. Quite frankly, you will hate every minute of the discussion because you will worry about getting a phone call from a parent claiming that you are trying to turn his or her child into a _______ (liberal, conservative, republican, democrat . . . or something worse).

You have every reason to fear a political discussion if students are not prepped properly. I taught AP American government and politics for over a decade without one single complaint from parents, whereas many of my colleagues suffered excessively every single time a political discussion erupted in class. Why the difference? I wish I could tell you it was just because I was a great teacher, but that wasn’t it at all.

The difference was this: I am very clear when I tell students that, in my class, I will not tell them my personal views on any of the issues. My job is to ask questions that stimulate thought and respect. Secondly, there will be no insults, subtle or direct. In other words, defuse the explosive atmosphere from the start.

In 25 years, I have never told a student my political views. Now, you may disagree with me on this, but I can assure you that staying politically neutral in class is in your best interest for your career and is what most parents expect.

Whatever reason you can think of for telling students your political leanings, know this: You will risk your credibility with half the student, parent, and administrative population because they will no doubt disagree with you the minute you take a side.

I think, though it may be tempting to express a political ideology, that it is our job as teachers to teach not our views but how to think critically about the evidence presented. I assert that there is an ever-present harm to your career and happiness as a teacher if you allow a contentious political discussion to go unchecked in your classroom or if you add fuel to the fire by taking a side. Moreover, your diligence in prepping and directing students without masked leanings will go a long way toward establishing your credibility as an educator.

Author Patrick Kelley, M.A.Patrick Kelley, M.A., has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from California State University, San Bernardino, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Castleton State College in Vermont. He has been a classroom teacher for more than 25 years. He has experience as a mentor teacher and an AP coordinator as well as 10 years of experience with the AVID program. He is certified in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and currently works with the International Baccalaureate program. Patrick provides workshops and presentations to districts, schools, and teams. Visit him at www.patrickkelleybooks.com.

Teaching SmarterPatrick Kelley is the author of Teaching Smarter: An Unconventional Guide to Boosting Student Success.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


Suggested Resources
Every Vote Matters: The Power of Your Voice, from Student Elections to the Supreme Court


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Gifted, Talented, or Just Hardworking?

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Gifted, Talented, or Just Hardworking?I took a very interesting route to teaching. My first degree was in theater. After graduation, I had a difficult time finding employment that paid well. So after years of working in retail and restaurants, I decided to return to school to get a post-baccalaureate degree in education. I landed in a wonderful magnet school for gifted and talented students. I thought I was being hired for the talent portion of the program—as a trained actor, where else was I going to get a captive audience? However, I learned very quickly that gifted students are much smarter than I am—and they were not that interested in my classroom shenanigans. So, I again returned to school to learn more about gifted and talented students.

What I learned is that significant differences exist between a gifted student, a talented student, and a generally hardworking student. Here are some brief guidelines for what your students need based on their academic differences.

Gifted
The term “gifted” is highly charged and is often misused in education. I often hear people say that all kids are gifted. This simply is not true. Saying all students are gifted is like saying that all kids are six feet tall. Giftedness is an innate ability that goes well beyond what other kids of a similar age and experience level can do. In classic terms, giftedness is typically identified through a student’s IQ (Intelligence Quotient): A gifted individual has an IQ of (approximately) 130 or greater. Gifted people represent less than 2 percent of the human population.

Gifted students can have many positive academic attributes, such as inquisitiveness and an insatiable curiosity. They can also exhibit a lot of more challenging behaviors, such as producing inferior work, impertinence, disruptiveness, failure to follow directions, underachievement, and an inability to deal with failure. Many of these undesirable characteristics stem from the strain of being different from others and many come from having a fixed mindset based on previous experiences of never being challenged enough.

Therefore, gifted students need challenges early. They need to understand the value and worth of the materials they are working with and how learning fundamental skills can lead to greater accomplishments in the content area. They need exposure to deep and complex information and more authentic learning experiences. Gifted students should also be connecting with experts in the content areas that students are passionate about. Often, grade-level materials are too simple. Sometimes gifted students should be accelerated in school so they reach more challenging materials sooner.

Talented
All students have a talent worth developing. A talent is something you work at and is often not fully realized until adulthood—whereas giftedness is often recognized early in life. Talented students have a passion for learning content. They are the “teacher pleasers” in your classroom. They work hard, do their homework, and seek additional challenges. Typically, they want to do more than what is required. Talented students answer questions while gifted kids ask questions. Talented students’ interests, attentions, and work habits run deep.

These students need opportunities to develop their talent areas, to be challenged to think differently, and to expand on their achievements. Sometimes talented students can be very competitive with one another—therefore, they need to learn how to measure personal growth rather than comparing their growth against others’. For these students, keeping a journal or self-assessment log to measure their own growth can help them realize how hard they have worked toward their accomplishments. Support talented students by encouraging their self-efficacy and efforts as ways to success.

Hard Workers
While giftedness is innate and talent flourishes with experience, hard workers know the value of effort in the achievement equation. One can be gifted (have innate abilities), talented (develop abilities over time), and a really hard worker. What a great combination!

Those kids who have learned the lessons of perseverance, persistence, and patience are the ones who find the most success in school. Hard work is a critical factor in developing a growth mindset. Earlier, I mentioned fixed mindsets (the belief that abilities are set and not likely to change). Kids who have a growth mindset understand the value of hard work and stick-to-it-ness. Achievement is benefited by how much effort you put toward the learning.

To help all kids learn to be hard workers, teach them the value and worth of learning the content. Connect the lessons to the lives of the students you teach. Provide them with problems that are actually worth solving, such as real-world problems. Also, teach students how to think—not what to think—by engaging them in the practices of thinking every single day.

Additionally, use the philosophy of “yet” in your classroom. Whenever a student says “I’m not good at math,” complete the statement with yet! (“I’m not good at math . . . yet.”) Turn negative comments around to focus on what the student has yet to achieve and has yet to learn. No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something. Same idea: No one is born being good at math; you practice math until you are good at it.

For more ideas on working with gifted and talented students, check out my book with Dr. Diane Heacox, Differentiation for Gifted Learners: Going Beyond the Basics. For great ideas on developing students’ passions and talents, take a look at Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. My recent publication, Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn, can give you some great ideas for developing students’ growth mindsets for greater success.

Differentiation for Gifted Learners Advancing Differentiation Self-regulation

 

 

 


Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.


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Creating a Safe Environment for Students to Fail and Learn

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution

Creating a Safe Environment for Students to Fail and LearnAs a former middle and high school English teacher, I love metaphors. And actually, metaphors are very practical: They are a wonderful teaching tool, helping people clearly see that which otherwise may be obscure. One of my favorite metaphors relates to teaching:

Educating students is like growing a garden.

Imagine an empty lot, one that we want to transform into a lush flower garden. As those responsible for this garden, we might begin by hiring a well-respected landscape architect to create a design for it. In education, we, as a nation, have spent billions paying teams of experts to create federal, state, and local curricula. Once we have our garden design, we might then hire a knowledgeable landscaper to plant, fertilize, water, weed, and nurture our new garden. Similarly, in schools, we hire the best teaching candidates, expecting them to use the most effective instructional and classroom management practices available so our students learn and grow to their potential.

In time, we will need to evaluate our garden based on how we originally envisioned it. After our evaluation, we may need to make adjustments—moving a plant into a sunnier spot, watering more or less frequently, and so on. Similarly, in schools, educators use a wide variety of assessments to evaluate students’ learning: formal, informal, formative, summative, standardized, teacher-created, and more. As in the gardening scenario, the results of the assessment may call for adjustments or improvements. In such cases, educators may reexamine and revise curriculum, instructional or classroom management practices, and/or the assessment tool, in hopes of better scores on the next assessment.

Common sense tells us that these three elements—planning (curriculum development), planting and nurturing (instructing and managing), and assessing and adjusting—are everything we need to create a beautiful garden (educate our students).

However, a fourth element, which seems so obvious that we may not even consider it, exists: the climate in which we attempt to grow our garden. If the landscape architect, who is from the American Southwest, doesn’t consider the climate of our garden—say, southern Quebec province—many of the flowers and fruit trees he plants won’t survive the harsh winter. His design will fail. No amount of tending will make much difference.

Similarly, if we don’t attend to the climate in which our students are “planted,” we, as educators, will also fail—no matter how well-designed the curriculum or how effective the teaching.

Of course, it’s true that some varieties of plants can thrive in a wide variety of climates, just as many students can learn and thrive in almost any learning environment. However, just as the vast majority of plants thrive only within a limited range of temperature, rainfall, and other climate factors, most students require specific school climate conditions in order to reach their “growing” or learning potential.

If we do not seriously consider the climate in which our students and educators are striving to meet the highly challenging Common Core State Standards, we are doomed to repeat the pattern of examining and revising our curriculum, instruction, and/or assessments while continuing to achieve the same unsatisfactory results. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results: Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Gardeners have found ways to control the physical climate in which they garden—greenhouses, artificial light, automatic watering, and so on. They understand the specific needs of the plants they are trying to grow and adjust their environment to meet those needs. As educators, we too can have a profound, positive impact on the climate in which we educate our students. By understanding what students need and intentionally creating a needs-satisfying classroom and school climate, we can create a learning environment in which all students can thrive.

The Components of a Positive Classroom and School Climate
Based on over 50 years of research by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and research conducted by the National Center for School Climate, we know three conditions are needed for students to thrive and learn.

1. Safety and Order
Students need to know that while they are in the classroom, they are both physically and emotionally safe. Here are some ways teachers can create a safe and orderly environment:

  • Provide clear behavioral and academic expectations from the very beginning.
    Teach effective procedures for practical tasks and instructional time that provide a sense of order. Examples include getting students immediately engaged upon entering the room, taking lunch count, transitioning between topics or activities, collecting student work, distributing and collecting materials, cleaning up, moving from place to place in the building, and so on.
  • Teach students that it’s okay to fail—that unless we fail, we can’t learn to our potential. Discuss the process of learning to walk or learning to beat a video game. Multiple failures are necessary in order to achieve our goals. Teachers need to provide multiple opportunities to succeed. Mastery or competence-based learning is based on the reality that students learn at different rates, but all students can learn.
  • Hold conferences with struggling students. To return to the garden metaphor, when we have a tomato plant that is struggling, we don’t yell at it, punish it, bribe it, or deny it plant food or water while praising and rewarding the plants that do grow. Instead, we try to discover what the tomato plant needs and provide that. With a student, instead of using extrinsic motivation to make the student comply, have a conference with the student and discover the underlying cause for his or her poor performance. It could be she or he has a fixed mindset (“I’m just not good in math”), is missing important background knowledge, doesn’t want to appear stupid in front of peers, has problems at home, or any number of issues. If you discover the underlying concern, you can address it directly instead of continually using coercive techniques.

2. Positive Relationships
An optimum learning environment is built on trusting relationships not only between students and their teacher, but also among the students in the class. Try these ways of creating a sense of community:

  • Share appropriate personal information with students.
  • Attend students’ sporting events, plays, concerts, and other extracurricular activities.
  • Establish healthy boundaries. Explain what students can and can’t expect from you and what you will and won’t expect from them.
  • Integrate team-building activities and games into the classroom.
  • Hold regular community meetings.
  • Smile before the holidays (as opposed to the old cliché that urges teachers not to do so).

3. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Responsibility, empathy, honesty, perseverance, and self-control are essential characteristics of students in an optimal learning environment. These traits don’t just happen naturally by hanging posters about them or by naming hallways in our schools (Respect Avenue). They must be intentionally taught and integrated into the curriculum. There is not enough space in this blog to describe all the ways we can teach the skills and sub-skills needed to demonstrate these traits. However, many excellent SEL resources are available from CASEL (the Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning), Free Spirit Publishing, and my book The School Climate Solution.

Research shows that classrooms and schools that intentionally focus on creating a positive climate demonstrate significant improvements not only in student learning and achievement, but also in attendance and graduation rates; student behavior; student attitudes toward school, others, and themselves; teacher retention; and incidents of school violence. It’s time to stop our obsession with curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and focus on creating a climate in which every student, every individual flower, if you will, in our classroom garden can thrive.

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, professional development specialist, college professor, and director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to intrinsic motivation and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The School Climate SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.


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A School Counselor’s Role with Students at Risk for Substance Abuse: An Infographic

By Tim Wayne

A School Counselor’s Role with Students at Risk for Substance AbuseEvery day, nearly 7,800 students experiment with drugs for the first time; 12,500 drink alcohol for the first time. Well over half of all students will experiment with drugs or alcohol before maturing into young adults, which makes effective drug prevention policy and prevention messaging crucial for K–12 students.

School counselors can play a major role in ensuring that students abstain from substance abuse. Many students rely on their counselors to provide positive direction in avoiding risky lifestyle choices, such as drug use, so it is vital for counselors to learn to recognize the symptoms of substance abuse in students.

Many signs alert a counselor of a student’s substance abuse, such as:

  • Sudden changes in grooming, sleeping, and eating habits
  • Inattentiveness in class, unexplained absences, and dwindling academic performance
  • Changing peer groups
  • Increasing trouble with school officials or law enforcement

As school counselors, we are empowered to recognize and act on signs of drug abuse in our schools. Schoolwide substance abuse and prevention policies are a useful start, but policies only represent the beginning of what counselors can do to reduce drug abuse in schools.

Effective Communication Strategies
Prevention begins with good communication. According to surveys referenced in the infographic below, students often misunderstand the risks associated with the use of drugs, such as marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. Perhaps not so coincidentally, students today are less likely to report having been exposed to prevention messages at their schools than students ten years ago.

These statistics present a clear call for counselors to provide students with the knowledge and resources to resist substance abuse. With the help of tools like social media, counselors can more effectively reach students, educators, and peers to collaborate on drug policy and prevention messaging ideas and activities.

But counselors aren’t tasked with doing all of this alone. Effective drug prevention is a community effort that requires the involvement of parents, youth organizations, and law enforcement. While counselors can’t keep students safe in a bubble, they can orchestrate the community involvement students need so that kids receive appropriate and consistent drug prevention messaging across all parts of their lives.

Some specific strategies counselors can use to recruit their communities include working with mental health providers, and partnering with organizations such as the YMCA or local art centers. Parent groups, such as PTAs and PTOs, can also be highly effective for outreaching to students.

Learn more about the ways counselors can identify and help prevent youth substance abuse with the infographic below.

Tim Wayne writes in promotion of Bradley University’s Online Program in Professional School Counseling. He is interested in education, healthcare, and small business management. Tim is a professional blogger from Virginia Beach whose most recent works include several collaborations with educational and healthcare publications to discuss mental health issues.

 School Counselor’s Role with Students at Risk for Substance Abuse



We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


Suggested Resources
Wise Highs: How to Thrill, Chill, & Get Away from It All Without Alcohol or Other Drugs


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10 Provocative Conversation Starters to Help Tweens Make Good Choices

10 Provocative Conversation Starters to Help Tweens Make Good ChoicesDeveloping positive decision-making skills helps prepare kids to meet life’s challenges. In group discussions, ask kids to imagine themselves in one or more of the following ten scenarios and talk about how they’d respond:

  1. You borrow your friend’s bike to go to the store because yours is in the shop. Someone takes the bike. How do you handle this?
  2. You and a friend are sitting next to the aisle at a movie. A short way into the film, a stranger slides over and sits right next to you. He’s so close that his arm touches yours. He keeps looking at you. You feel uncomfortable. How do you handle this?
  3. A kid in your class is HIV positive. Other kids are afraid to sit next to or hang out with him. You know people can’t get AIDS just by sitting next to someone with HIV. How do you handle this?
  4. When your teacher asks for your essay, you realize it’s still sitting on the table at home. This is your last chance to turn it in without losing any points. No one is home to bring it to you. How do you handle this?
  5. A classmate asks you to meet her at the park to hang out. But your parents specifically asked you not to socialize with her. Your parents both work. Chances are they’ll never find out if you go. What do you do?
  6. Your science teacher often makes subtle and sarcastic remarks about girls, and he hardly ever calls on them in class. It’s obvious he favors the boys. You know it’s not right. What can you do?
  7. You’re at a buddy’s apartment playing near the outdoor pool. Suddenly, you realize that his younger sister fell into the deep end of the pool. You know she can’t swim, and you can’t either. No one else is around. What do you do?
  8. Your little brother idolizes you and wants to spend all his time with you. You love him and don’t want to hurt his feelings, but you need your space. Your parents think it’s “sweet” that he follows you around. How do you handle this?
  9. A friend tells you that she’s thinking about hurting herself. You’re worried about her. What do you do?
  10. You’ve shared a personal secret with a close friend. A few days later, you discover everyone in the whole school knows. How do you handle this?

Kids' Daily Dilemmas In a JarFor more scenarios to get kids talking, check out Kids’ Daily Dilemmas In a Jar®: 101 Decisions to Think & Talk About.


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