Respectful dialogue across difference:  Teaching politics at Schechter Manhattan

Respectful dialogue across difference:  Teaching politics at Schechter Manhattan

At Schechter Manhattan we aspire for our students to develop the skills and dispositions to be active citizens in American society. This year, as every year, we are engaging students in study of the election cycle. The current midterm election campaign has reflected the contentious nature of politics in recent years and emotions are running high across the political spectrum. In this charged climate it is appropriate to consider how we approach politics at Schechter Manhattan and what we hope our students will learn.

We teach about the functioning and functions of local, state and federal government. In the Middle School Humanities curriculum students explore various forms of government and consider the challenges and strengths of different systems.  They study the founding documents of the United States and the issues that shaped the US Constitution. In the 8th grade they analyze conceptions of the American dream and evaluate those ideas relative to the reality experienced by varied Americans.  As issues come up within a given year’s election cycle, the 8th grade students consider the positions through the conceptual lens of the American dream, adding a layer of complexity and timeliness to their course of study.

In regards to specific political parties, platforms, and candidates, it has been our longstanding practice for teachers to avoid sharing their personal political views with their students. We aspire for students to engage in safe and respectful dialogue about all topics, including politics.  Since teachers hold more power in the classroom, sharing our political leanings would shift the dynamic in the learning community such that it would not be as safe for dissenting views to be aired. The role of the teacher is to nurture and maintain safe spaces for students to share their perspectives and think critically.

We help students engage in civil and respectful discourse, even and especially when they disagree. We remind students regularly of classroom standards of respect and intervene if students cross boundaries in the tone or content of their speech. In this way students can take risks to share their perspectives, ask critical questions, and come to their own conclusions about the political issues and speech they encounter. Students also practice the skill and art of civil dialogue with people that they disagree with, learning to listen carefully, manage their reactions, and respond thoughtfully to one another.

For some time now, political dialogue in our society has often not met the high standards for respect that we expect at Schechter Manhattan. Angry rhetoric, racist and sexist speech, and topics that are not developmentally appropriate for young children, such as sexual abuse, have filled the stump speeches, debates, and headlines. In this atmosphere, there are some thoughtful and well-respected educators in the larger field who advocate for teachers to share their political perspectives within the classroom and to publicly endorse political positions and candidates. At Schechter Manhattan, we acknowledge the challenging character of the strident political climate, but we believe that it makes our educational approach even more important. More than ever, our students need to develop the critical thinking capacities to evaluate ideas and values and make their own good judgments. More than ever, they need to engage in respectful discourse with people who think differently than they do. So, we are sticking with our educational approach and aspirations.

When challenging topics come up in classrooms, for example if a student repeats racist or sexist comments heard through political  coverage in the media, we respond through the lens of Jewish values. Teachers remind students of enduring understandings that might shape their thinking and responses to what they have heard. We tell students that in Jewish tradition we believe that every human being is created בצלם אלקים, bteslem elohim, in the image of God, is  holy, and should therefore be treated with caring and respect. We point out that the sages taught us כבוד הבריאות,kvod habriot, honor for God’s creations, and that all human beings deserve to be treated in ways that avoid embarrassment or humiliation. We show them the many times throughout the Torah that God commands us גר לא תונה, ger lo toneh, do not oppress the stranger, because God expects us to care for the weaker members of society, not take advantage of or harm them. With these Jewish ideals in mind, students are asked to think for themselves about whether the comments of a given political figure, the platform of a given party, or position on a given issue is in concert with their own values.

On Election Day, students throughout the school will learn about the civic responsibilities of holding an informed opinion and, when they are older, casting their vote. Students in grades K-3 will participate in learning activities in their classrooms, focused on ways that people asses differences in ideas and make informed judgements.  Students in grade 4-8 will join our annual 7th grade Election Day Debates. The 7th grade students, who have been studying the United States system of politics and law, will present a Lincoln-Douglas style debate. They have practiced taking both sides of a debate topic and listening carefully to their opponent, so that they can respond effectively.  The audience of students and faculty will fill out ballots after each debate, indicating which team made the stronger presentation. In this way, the 7th grade will practice an essential element of our democracy, public debate on important issues.

As indicated in our mission statement, we believe that when given the opportunity to engage in thoughtful debate across disciplines, our students become independent learners and powerful communicators. The approach to teaching about elections at Schechter Manhattan affords students just such an opportunity. In the end, we aspire for our students to develop the characteristics that will make them the future leaders of America- people who are well informed, are grounded in values, can make thoughtful and critical evaluations, and who are able to engage respectfully with those with whom they disagree.

 

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Benjamin Mann