Another Voice: Teaching civics in divisive times

We’ve had an exciting beginning to a new school year in the Hood River County School District. So many “thank yous” are in order to so many committed HRCSD community members who meaningfully contribute to our vibrant learning community!

While teaching and learning will always be our primary focus, this year we’ve seen our staff, parents and students navigate cougar sightings, an ammonia leak at a local fruit packing plant forcing evacuations and transportation disruptions, and the expected (yet frustrating) issues that usually come with major construction activity. All this while managing the many curriculum, instruction and assessment projects that make school … well, school! Student safety and excellent instruction for each and every student are the top priorities in HRCSD and I’m proud of our educators’ ability to maintain high academic expectations while keeping our children safe.

As I reflect back on the start to this school year, it’s hard to believe Thanksgiving is just around the corner. I’m looking forward to spending time with my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, but I’d be lying if I said it will be easygoing at the dinner table. For my extended family — a family characterized not only by love, but by political and religious diversity — too much time together can also be explosive. I’ve noticed that the last few years’ conversations about the world around us are getting more and more strained as we look for ways to avoid talking about politics and the like.

Last week, one of our high school social studies teachers told me that he’s never been so stressed out in his career. He explained that he’s on “pins and needles” as he covers basic Government course topics — topics many of us won’t dare broach this Thanksgiving with our own families.

In a divisive political climate, with a diverse classroom full of adolescents equipped with the power of mobile phones and social media, he is required to cover the following standards with his students:

Analyze political parties, interest and community groups, and mass media and how they influence the beliefs and behaviors of individuals, and local, state, and national constituencies;

Examine the pluralistic realities of society recognizing issues of equity and evaluating the need for change;

Construct arguments using precise claims, integrating and evaluating information provided by multiple sources, diverse media, and formats, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary strengths and weaknesses;

Identify and analyze multiple and diverse perspectives as critical consumers of information; and

Propose, compare, and evaluate multiple responses, alternatives, or solutions to issues or problems; then reach an informed, defensible, supported conclusion.”

I contend that most adults couldn’t have respectful and open discussions about these topics! Despite his best efforts and his many, many years of successful teaching experience, he reports that his students and their parents seem ready to pounce, accuse, and reject any information or discussion that doesn’t gel with their current perspective. That, my friends, is the antithesis of learning.

I often hear from families, and read demands in the media, that our students need more civics instruction, that they need to better understand how our government works, that they should understand the constitution more deeply, and they need to improve their ability to reason, listen, evaluate, and make sense of the world around them. I also hear complaints that our teachers should “stay out of politics,” are too opinionated, and make students in the political minority feel uncomfortable in their beliefs. How are our teachers supposed to navigate these conflicting demands and also teach the required state academic standards listed above?

Teaching — especially Civics — is simply an impossible task to fulfill if we cannot afford our teachers the grace necessary to engage our children in these important and often uncomfortable topics. Rather than waiting in ambush for the next time a discussion on civics in our classrooms doesn’t perfectly align with a specific world view, let’s get behind our teachers and recognize that they are charged with teaching difficult subject matter in incredibly controversial times. At this upcoming Thanksgiving, as my family struggles to have a civil conversation about world events, I will be thankful — truly thankful — our teachers have the courage to teach.


Dan Goldman is superintendent of Hood River County School District.

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