Roundtable: Teaching Amid Political Tension

For many teachers in both primary and secondary education, the classroom feels like a far more tense place as we head back for the 2017-2018 academic year than it did just a year ago, thanks to what seem like tectonic shifts in America’s political and social landscape. American history has become ever more politicized as metaphors and analogies abound between contemporary politics and earlier eras and figures―the founding and Andrew Jackson among the most prominent.

In an environment where students see connections to the past more readily, where some students and faculty feel emboldened to proclaim their political beliefs in the classroom and others stifled, discussion has been rampant in person and on social media about whether and how we need to adjust our approaches to the classroom.

At the recent SHEAR conference in Philadelphia, a plenary session on “Teaching in the Age of Trump” examined some of these questions. The discussion was urgent and politically charged, and opened a variety of questions about how we should approach our students, our classrooms, and our syllabi when we return in just a few weeks (Jennifer Black, a roundtable participant, created a Storify of the session’s tweets). The discussion in Philadelphia, however, focused more on higher-order philosophies of teaching than on the practical management of classroom experiences. To give a few examples, I left the conference with a number of questions, including:

  • How do we teach students to engage in historical thinking, and encourage them to apply it to their lives?
  • How do we encourage students to use historical thinking to understand the many historical analogies floating around?
  • How do we help students understand civics when they feel disenfranchised (broadly construed) from American politics?

This roundtable seeks to pick up that conversation, to explore threads left unexplored, and to move the conversation forward. Our participants this week do not seek to be comprehensive, or to provide the definitive or final answer for how to teach in 2017. There simply isn’t any one answer that applies to all of us and the variety of our situations.

In our first post, Tara Strauch explains how she teaches students a “historical sense” so that they approach the past with sensitivity. Many students are accustomed to living and attending school in a politically charged environment, she notes, and historical thinking can be a useful way to nudge them out of their comfort zones.

Next, Gautham Rao offers five approaches that he utilizes to reconcile his own political beliefs with those of his students and create an environment that acknowledges the present but allows space for free-flowing discussion about the past.

Our third post features Jennifer Black, who teaches a course on “turning points” which she frames as a way to use historical memory to examine present-day debates about race and society in the United States.

Finally, Sean Trainor discusses his plan to “democratize the classroom” by folding student feedback and decision-making into his U.S. history survey course. The goal, he writes, is to encourage students to feel empowered in their education and, if successful, the world.

The SHEAR plenary ended with hands in the air as time expired on the session. Unlike in Philadelphia, thankfully, the comment threads on the blog and social media (we’re using the Twitter hashtag #TenseTeaching) will be open for conversation, and we invite you to join in.

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7 comments on “Roundtable: Teaching Amid Political Tension

  1. Carol DeGrasse says:

    This sounds like it was an intriguing discussion–I wish I could have been there! I am using “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass as a springboard for writing assignments and discussion in my classes this semester. Although the assignments entail a great deal of rhetorical analysis of the full-text speech, the assignments also open the door for discussion of the present-day political and social context as it relates to that of the past. I have several small assignments that use an abridged version of the speech alongside other shorter texts for comparison, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and some social change-themed rap lyrics. I am very excited to see how these projects unfold over the course of the semester, but I am also anticipating a lot of lively and thought-provoking discussion from the students. Thank you for the round-table assessment!

    • Carol DeGrasse says:

      I guess that I should add that my class is a first-year composition course. However, I think that history and literature are permanently and beautifully intertwined and should be used to complement each other in the classroom.

  2. […] is the first entry in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension. Today’s post is by Tara Strauch, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Centre College […]

  3. […] is the second post in the series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I). Today’s post is by Gautham Rao, who is an Assistant Professor of History at […]

  4. […] is the third post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II). Today’s post comes from Jennifer M. Black, an Assistant Professor of […]

  5. […] is the final post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II, Part III). Today’s post is by Sean Trainor, who teaches history, […]

  6. […] Junto roundtable: Teaching Amid Political Tension. […]

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