Join Evin Shinn on January 22nd to chat more about Inauguration Week: Hopes, Fears, and Change for Students and Teacher
Can the beginning of a new presidential term become a multi-faceted teachable moment?
Whatever side of the political fence you sit on, there is no doubt that the Chinese proverb “may you live in interesting times” is already coming true.
But even this introduction is a misnomer. Most people I know simply don’t want to be classified just by whether they sit on either side of a political “fence.” There is a degree of nuance in everyone, and my friends and colleagues all are working hard to project that. They may have supported Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or a third-party candidate, but just about all have misgivings about some element of their preferred choice.
Can we look at what we have in common and how we are different? After all, we are all human, we are predominantly American, but half are female and half are male, some are old enough to vote and some not.
So what can we do, when inquisitive students come into our classrooms armed with questions that cut through the rhetoric to the core issues of the day: what sort of president will Donald Trump be, and will he be good for America?
Since Alvin Toffler wrote “Future Shock” in 1970, futurists like him have been telling us that the only constant is change. It’s not wordplay; it’s today’s reality. The biggest difference between now and then is the rate of change. For example, does anyone reading this still have a MySpace page? Anyone still have a playable eight-track machine? Does anyone reading this not possess a cell phone?
I think we know the answers. Life is changing faster and faster as the years fly by.
The element that has played so large a part in the change in our lives is technology. It’s easy to use Facebook as an example, although it’s not the only way in which our methods of communicating have changed.
Facebook calls itself a “social utility” and whatever you label it, there is no doubt that it is social and utilitarian. It allows people to express themselves about the issues of the day and receive validation for their views by like-minded “friends.”
It can be a tool for good — the warm group-hug tributes after a death in the community or the marshaling of like-minded people to action, like the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011.
It can be a tool for bad — the spreading of hate and falsehoods (the 2016 presidential campaign and Britain’s June 2016 Brexit vote about Europe meet these criteria all-too easily).
We do well if we teach our students to identify and appreciate these major differences.
Danah Boyd, a researcher at the Microsoft Research, Data & Society group, has written extensively about this.
“Many in the tech world imagined that the Internet would connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be bridged and wounds to heal,” she wrote recently. “It was the ‘kumbaya’ dream. Today, those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the tools that were designed to bring people together are used by people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity. These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.”
(That particular column goes on to address two institutions that have helped Americans better learn diversity: the full-time military and most college dorm room-mate allocators, which are losing ground. A topic for another day.)
Donald Trump exploited Internet methods of direct communication to be elected president. Direct and immediate Twitter posts brought media attention and made him the focus of everything. Third-party candidates were marginalized (although their votes would have swung states, more likely to Clinton had they not been involved), and it is commonly held that Clinton herself was reduced to waging a campaign that said, “I’m not him.” Analysts in years to come may come to deeper conclusions, but there is little argument that Trump’s strategy worked, bypassing traditional media channels and appealing directly to voters.
The tone, however, should be part of our teachable moment.
- Do we treasure it as a value?
- If so, how do we preserve it by practicing it?
- With so many shrill, ardent voices out there, how do we practice civility without it appearing to be a weakness?
The Constitution, that brilliant and wonderfully fluid document that changes with our changing times, can be part of a teachable moment in any discipline, not just civic class.
- How do we treasure our First Amendment rights of free speech?
- Do we value this above all other rights?
- And how does fact differ from opinion?
Teaching our students to identify the important difference should be a crucial priority as they gather the former and mold the latter, especially when facing change. It also should lead to them being able to recognize the difference between, “You are wrong” and “I disagree with your opinion.”
I wonder if one of the foremost American questions will always be: How do we fight for freedom of speech and protect that right, even for those whose opinions are abhorrent to us?
Change should open a discussion not a blood bath between different viewpoints. Perhaps one way of showing this could be dividing the class into Seahawks fans and those who do not proudly wear the No. 12. Of those in the latter group, do they support other teams like the 49ers or Raiders (let’s identify the bad boys!)? But what about those who don’t care about football?
And then there is truth. How does truth play a role in change?
Winston Churchill’s two most famous quotes on truth and lies demonstrate how our ethics on truthfulness are invariably dictated by circumstances.
He said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
The same man, who some believe was Britain’s most respected prime minister, also said,
“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
Has the presidential election season become our equivalent of “wartime”?
How do we get across to students that if they see something posted online it does not mean it is true?
We can certainly encourage personal research in the classroom and enlist the help of our buildings’ librarians to show ways to check things out.
Www.snopes.com is a good starting point. It is an independent web site that exists entirely to debunk or confirm Internet postings. It proves we have a nuanced world. Often its conclusion is “partially true,” and its authors will explain why.
The teaching moment, perhaps, is what examples of real-world actions and change were based on an impetus that resulted from a lie?
It all adds up to teaching our students the following concepts about change:
- Change is inevitable. Identify how you respond to change and figure out how to graciously accept what is sometimes inescapable.
- Know the facts. Do your research and make sure you understand the reason for the change and what information the change is based on. Knowledge is power! Help students understand that it’s harder to disagree with someone when they know the facts about the situation and you don’t. Debates are a great strategy for teaching this.
- Listen to both sides of the issue. It’s too easy to jump to conclusions, particularly if faced with an emotional issue requiring a change of perspective.
- Identify the positive results from the change. A person might not like the new idea, but if students can find something good in the change, it will be easier to accept.
- What are the alternatives? Knowing what the other options exist and how to work towards them is a positive and powerful way to create an environment that meets a person’s needs.
- Agree to disagree. Individuals are not always going to think the same way about change or other issues. It’s OK to have a different opinion. Be respectful towards someone else’s point of view. Have a discussion not an argument when presenting your ideas. No name calling! Acceptance of the right to have your own ideas and opinion is key!
- No change is forever. In the Pacific Northwest we often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes, and it will change.” This holds true for life as well.
If teachers can foster this thoughtful, deliberate, and informed response to change in our students, then change will become easier and will lead to a more positive response and life. Trump will be our president for at least four years. How you respond to this change in leadership can make a difference. And remember, if you don’t like something now, this too shall pass.