Despite my love of history and civics, I really dislike election season. I love to vote, of course, but I hate all the anger and trash-talk it brings. It’s why I don’t do a lot with social media. My tolerance for inflammatory political statements is pretty low.
We see people trash talk at protests, in political conversations, on social media, and in person. It bothers me more when that trash talk comes from kids. Kids are ugly to each other a lot. It can’t possibly help when, some days, it seems like the whole country is setting a bad example of discourse.
Most teachers of US History remember George Washington’s Farewell Address. We often reference it because it warns our country against political parties.
Primary source break!
“sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Many folks say that this current election is the ugliest since ... (fill in the blank with your favorite ugly election -- (1800, 1876, 1860, 2000?) There are many, many factors that go into ugliness in an election. I won’t dig into that here.
But we can think about conversation, discourse, and manners.
I would like to think about another George Washington resource I used to use in my classroom -- The Rules of Civility. Our first president didn’t create these rules; they were a standard booklet that teachers used to make students like GW copy to practice handwriting and teach manners.
But George Washington was known for referencing, quoting, and using these rules in his speeches, writings, and conversations. Here are a couple that I love:
1. Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
47. Mock not nor Jest at anything of Importance break [n]o Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver anything witty and Pleasant abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.
58. Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for 'tis a Sig[n o]f a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion [ad]mit Reason to Govern.
66. Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.
86. In Disputes, be not So Desirous to Overcome as not to give Liberty to each one to deliver his Opinion and Submit to the Judgment of the Major Part especially if they are Judges of the Dispute.
I want to challenge you to think deliberately and carefully about how you teach civility in your social studies classes.
If we don’t teach respectful disagreement and civil discourse in social studies courses -- we are not helping our nation. I’m sure our election CAN -- and MAY -- get uglier. But I’d like to think that we can learn to fight more “cleanly”.
I have two suggestions for improving the quality of our political conversations. They actually go together quite nicely.
- Debate and/or Thrash Out: The more practice our students have with debate, the better they get. The more academic debates our students participate in, the more they learn how to disagree without name calling, insults, hostility, or manipulation. Have them debate big, important issues in history, economics, and government -- or let them practice debating smaller issues.
And don’t forget your Thrash Out with your DBQ. This is the best pre-writing strategy we have. It gives kids the chance to practice their claims and evidence in an engaging and competitive way -- while ALSO teaching them polite debate skills. It allows them to argue something multi-faceted with academic evidence.
Has there ever been a time when the lack of these skills were MORE needed in our country than over the past few weeks and months?
2. Historical Talking Tools: Many of you know them, but it you haven't used these sentence starters to teach your kids what truly academic civil discourse sounds like -- PLEASE use them! This is the poster version of the Historical Talking Tools and here is the bookmark version. These are sentence starters you can use to explicitly teach your students how to speak and debate academically and historically. They are so valuable in helping kids learn to debate.
Our country is based on debate. Our constitution is written to provide healthy avenues for debate. We want our students to learn how do disagree in productive ways.
George Washington warned us about ugly political parties -- and he felt strongly about manners and conversation. How do your students learn about this?
How do you teach civil discourse? I’d love more ideas! As always, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org