Students and staff share experiences, observations and challenges in the classroom
For this issue’s In-Depth topic, due to the upcoming November midterm elections, the Oracle chose to cover political discourse. The purpose of this article is not to argue in support of one political ideology or the other, but rather to highlight the experiences of students and teachers along the political spectrum when politics comes up in our classrooms. Our goal was to hear from as many voices as possible about their overall experience with discussing politics at school, whether in curriculum or during spontaneous discussion. Approximately 30 teachers and students were interviewed in person for the purpose of this article, although not all are featured due to limited space.
Welcome back to Oracle’s podcast, In-Depth Expanded, which is hosted by Oracle’s In-Depth editor, Renée Remsberg. This podcast will feature an interview with the lead writers for this article, Ana Mata and Janya Sundar, and details their discoveries and findings about reporting on political discourse in the classroom. The podcast is produced by Renée Remsberg, Mateo Kaiser, and Abby Porter.
District policy guides teachers to “exercise caution and discretion” when discussing particular issues in the classroom and to represent all sides of a controversial issue fairly. Additionally, teachers are expected to withhold from promoting “any partisan point of view” or suppressing any student’s views.
Math teacher Marcia Babiak said that she would “never bring up anything political” in her classroom.
“In my subject it’s pretty easy,” Babiak said. “Politics do not come up on an everyday basis when you’re trying to teach the quadratic formula.”
Other teachers said they discuss politics sparingly, often only as it relates to coursework.
“I shouldn’t have to teach the political issues,” McHenry said. “I teach the critical thinking skills my students need to dissect the political issues.”
Spanish teacher David Campbell does not actively pursue political discussion in the classroom, but he welcomes any connections students might make to current events, adding that it shows a deeper understanding of curriculum.
“I don’t think that my responsibility is to shut that down,” Campbell said. “It’s just a natural byproduct of having intelligent conversations.”
While some classrooms only engage in political discussion when students themselves bring it up, many teachers believe that political discourse intrinsically belongs in the classroom. Sullivan, who identifies as socially liberal said it would be a “teaching malpractice” not to use the classroom to discuss current events and learn effective political discourse.
Social studies teacher Kristin Cardenas agreed, saying that political discussions allow her students to become “more educated and open minded members of our democratic society.”
Senior and democrat Ally Halliday said she appreciates political discussions as a means to increase student knowledge around current events.
“It makes students more socially aware and politically aware of what’s happening in the country,” Halliday said, adding that it would be irresponsible of teachers not to address major current events.
In general, the majority of teachers interviewed agreed that when discussing politics in the classroom, it’s important to create a safe space for students to share their beliefs.
Senior Katie Meter emphasized the importance of giving students a platform to develop their own political ideologies.
“Students are figuring out who they are and what they believe,” Meter said. “It’s really important to have some sort of facilitation and somewhere where they can explore different ideas.”
Many teachers share similar views on discussing politics in the classroom but vary in their beliefs of disclosing their own political identity.
Social Studies teacher Kevin Heiken said that he is careful not to share his stance on political issues because he believes the role of the teacher should only be to facilitate discussion.
Freshman Alayna Lee said that teachers should not share their political views because students will be persuaded to agree with their teacher rather than develop their own opinions, and Junior Nitin Kumar, who described his political beliefs as “constantly changing,” added that it’s “near impossible” for students to share their opinions when the teacher is sharing their own.
Teachers like English teacher Paige Price, social studies teachers Jamaica Kreps, Carson Rietveld, and Hancock said they reveal their political leanings to provide students with a better understanding of how their political biases may affect conversation.
“If I just say to you ‘Kavanaugh shouldn’t have been elected’, but I don’t reveal that that comes from a set of very passionate values that I have, then to me, that’s worse [than concealing my political biases],” Price said.
Students Gerber and Hartley said that if teachers admit their bias, it can help to improve overall learning and allow for more honest discussion.
Though she said she does disclose her beliefs, Price added that she constantly goes back and forth about whether she should disclose her views to her students because she knows that she cannot ignore the “power imbalance” between teacher and students.
However, social studies teacher Julie Yick said that she does not disclose her beliefs during political discussions in the classroom because she wants students to think critically about the information provided to form their own informed opinions, instead of being swayed by her thoughts.
Contrary to them, Gallego said that he will express his personal beliefs to students when “they’re coming on their own time,” but will not do so in front of a whole class.
Overall, Rietveld said that political bias inevitably influences the classroom because teachers, especially in humanities courses, “infuse” their politics into curriculum.
“What I’ve chosen to teach you, the books your English teacher has chosen for you to read, [and the] way that our science teachers choose to teach science is a political choice and has political consequences,” Rietveld said.
Despite their views on whether or not teachers should disclose their political beliefs, all the teachers interviewed agreed that it was their job to create a safe space in the classroom, however, Principle David Grissom said that it’s difficult to create a space where students feel safe having political discussions, reflecting on his experiences as a social studies teacher.
“It’s our responsibility to remain neutral and allow students to form their own ideas [and] their own beliefs within the classroom,” said Grissom.
When discussing politics in the classroom, sophomore and conservative Avi Gerber said he refrains from sharing his political views for the sake of maintaining positive relations with his teachers and classmates, and for fear that it will impact his academics.
“I’m scared that maybe that it could have an impact on the way the teacher views me, which could have an impact on my grade,” Gerber said.
Gerber added that he doesn’t want his teachers and classmates to perceive him as a “troublemaker” or someone who “likes creating conflict.”
Although junior Libby Vastano does not identify as republican, she said that she has noticed others who feel uncomfortable sharing their political beliefs because they do not align with the “majority” on campus.
“I know people that didn’t go to school on the day of the walkout because they didn’t want to walk out of the classrooms, and they felt like they would be bullied,” Vastano said of the March for Our Lives Walkout last March.
Teachers noted the difficulty in avoiding homogenous political discussions, especially when students holding opposing or minority viewpoints feel disinclined to share their perspective.
“If 90 percent of the people in the room with you are saying one thing that you happen to disagree with, it takes an enormous amount of confidence for a person…[to] stand up and say to the 90 percent ‘You know what, I disagree with you. This is what I think,’” said Felitia Hancock, social studies teacher.
However, English teacher Ginny Sullivan said that although conservative students in the area do struggle with voicing their opinions in the classroom, she feels that other marginalized groups may also face struggles.
“My question is, is that student [a conservative] more shut down than a student who comes from a low- income family, and they’re a person of color, and they have to sit in a Socratic seminar about Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird?” Sullivan said.
In regards to the school’s curriculum, some students said they felt that political topics were usually discussed in a manner that did not fully encompass all viewpoints fairly.
“It’s kind of polarized because you hear one half of the story,” said conservative student Emily Hartley, who feels that classes often only demonstrate a liberal response to controversial events. “You don’t get to hear or fully understand the more conservative side.”
Junior Sarah Conway, who identified as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, agreed that the majority of class discussion skews left.
“Sometimes my views aren’t seen as valid because the teachers don’t cover it,” Conway said.
Furthermore, several students said that some of their teachers have not presented political discussions in a way that invites different views.
“I’ve had the experience when one of my teachers just completely didn’t accept what I was saying and then just told me to end it before I got sent to the office,” said junior and conservative Trinidad Martinez.
However, junior and democrat Carter Anderson said he believes the reason students don’t share their political views more closely correlates with their level of interest in politics rather than their political ideologies.
“Overall [the school is] a very open environment,” Anderson said. “But I think that people have different levels of comfort and different levels of activism and passion around the subject.”
*All the definitions presented in the article were written by each of the California political parties for the Voters Guide.