Election Debates and School Safety
Suggestions for administrators to help support staff and students
The election season provides ample opportunity for educational discussions and debate. Minnesota is diverse in people and opinions, and there will be many political discussions in the coffee shops as well as the school hallways. To ensure a safe learning environment for all students, work with all students to set guidance for political discussions, in and out of the classroom.
Establish School-Wide Discussion Expectations in the language of youth: Set aside one class period to engage the entire student body in identifying respectful communication: what does it looks like, sound like and feel like?
Discuss the two parts of communication: speaking and listening. One element of respectful communication is speaking in "I" statements--'I think, I feel, I believe.’ “I” statements help the listener know that the speaker owns what he/she says. The other half of communication is listening—hearing and comprehending what someone says. Then there is both what we say and how we say it. Have the students identify respectful speaking and listening elements and describe them.
Using the circle process can help facilitate classroom conversations in a respectful way. If possible, students sit in a circle so they can see each other’s faces, and take turns talking. A talking piece directs the conversation as it is sent around the circle going to each student in order. Everyone can see when it will be their turn to speak. When a circle participant has the talking piece they can speak, when they do not have it, they can listen. The Circle process slows down conversation. Participants cannot answer a remark immediately, but may have to wait until the talking piece comes to them for their turn to speak. This can encourage patience, thinking and reflection.
Send around the talking piece to ensure that all students in each classroom have had the chance to voice to what they think respectful communication is.
After that discussion, put the students into random groups of three or four. Have each group create a poster that advertises and highlights the elements from the discussion that they think are important. Share the posters with the class. Post the posters in the hallways. For a longer description of this process, go to this site for information on SEAD: Stop Everything and Dialogue.
Address Bullying and Intolerant Language - Because one of the amendments concerns lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, and the other amendment may bring up discussions about immigration, all staff and students need to respond respectfully and immediately to bullying or anti-gay, anti-immigrant comments and put-downs. View the Welcoming Schools Guide on What to Say to ‘That’s so Gay’ for ideas and suggestions. An inclusive environment promotes student learning.
Students (and adults) may hold opinions that they got from people they respect or love. However challenging the opinion expressed, adults should respond to the student with respect while clearly upholding the values and rules of the school.
Controversial Conversations in Class - Here are some resources for holding discussions on controversial topics:
Access the Minnesota Secretary of State website. The Minnesota Secretary of State has information regarding the proposed constitutional amendments, including the full text of the amendments on line.
Access the Minnesota School OUTreach Coalition website - Produced Supporting K-12 Students during the Minnesota Amendment Debates with recommendations for teachers on maintaining a safe and supportive classroom for all students.
Access the Teaching Tolerance website - A program of the Southern Poverty Law Center which has teacher guides for classroom strategies to create a safe learning environment for all students, regardless of opinions.
Access the Science Education Resource Center at Carlton College. “Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) is a type of cooperative learning strategy in which small teams of students learn about a controversial issue from multiple perspectives. The structured academic controversy technique is designed to engage students in controversy and then guide them to seek consensus.” What is Structured Academic Controversy? (read the in-depth description).
Access the Teaching Effectiveness Program - The University of Oregon’s Teaching Effectiveness Program provides articles such as Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom” and Cooperative Controversies.
Duck for President is a children's book written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Simon and Schuster, 2004). Starting a political discussion with the humorous side of elections can help make the serious conversation more respectful.
For further information contact Nancy Riestenberg, School Climate Specialist, 651-582-8433 or Mary Thissen-Milder, HIV AIDS Prevention Specialist, 651-582-8505.