After a taped encounter between Kentucky high school students and a Native American activist went viral, there's still disagreement and controversy over what really happened. Regardless of who's right, the nation's heightened polarization is clear, and other schools — including Thomas Worthington High School in Ohio — are working to boost tolerance by having students engage with members of extremist groups, Education Week reports.
Judi Galasso and Jonathan Duffy, co-teachers of the high school's U.S. Political Thought and Radicalism, or “poli-rad," class, regularly invite members of extreme political groups into their classroom to teach students to listen respectfully, ask questions politely, reserve judgment, and analyze tactics used, Education Week reports. The course's ground rules: Guests are uncensored and represent a diverse set of viewpoints, students have to be respectful and teachers can't disclose their political stances.
- While the class might be increasingly relevant amid a more divisive political climate, the class was created in 1975 and, over the years, has hosted guests including former revolutionary Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground, Harry Hughes of the National Socialist Movement, Ramona Africa from the black liberation group MOVE, white supremacist Richard Spencer and — only once — members of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the interaction at the Lincoln Memorial shows there are multiple views of every story, and as students continue to get involved in highly charged issues such as this one, it's important for them to learn how to handle the resulting discussions and respond to various perspectives in an appropriate way — especially if they don't agree. Civility and tolerance are arguably needed now more than ever, and activism is growing among college-bound high schoolers, who say the current political rhetoric has motivated them to speak up and pay attention to what's going on. And while the environment outside school is often uncensored and unguarded, the classroom typically allows for the exploration of multiple belief systems in a safe environment.
The "poli-rad" class is a bold example of the value in allowing students to hear opinions different from their own. However, its approach is controversial and could be frightening or dangerous in some circumstances — such as when the KKK's presence caused some to be alarmed, Education Week notes. As one of the instructors said, "In 2019, no school board in America would approve a class like this."
However, there are other, safer ways to expose students to new ideas. Watching videos of speeches given by people of diverse viewpoints, as well as discussing their ideas openly in the classroom, is one way to provide exposure. Offering debate teams as a class or extracurricular activity is another way to help students learn how to examine both sides of an issue, defend one stance and respond to the other in a format that is structured and develops both research and oral communication skills.
Another option is incorporating civil discourse conversations. Tolerance.org is one resource that offers curriculum materials to educators for free, noting that in a democratic society, while arguments should be tolerated and encouraged, not everyone may be willing to listen. Thomas Hollihan, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, notes in the course, “To engage in a healthy political argument is to acknowledge the possibility that one’s own arguments could be falsified or proven wrong. This demands that citizens listen respectfully to the claims made by others. Name-calling, threats and bullying behaviors do not meet the demands of effective deliberation.”
Educators have the power to expand their students’ knowledge of unfamiliar or controversial ideas through lesson plans, virtual connections and safe spaces for discussion. And by learning to explain their own views, while also listening to others, students gain the opportunity to refine social-emotional skillls and become more informed citizens.