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.