Teaching civics in a time of turmoil

BAR HARBOR — A challenge facing teachers and school administrators these days is how to talk with students — if at all — about current events and issues, especially in a time of extreme political polarization.

“That’s something we constantly have to discuss because there is a fine line between facilitation and indoctrination,” Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS), told the school board earlier this month.

“I don’t believe we want our schools to be devoid of these discussions; we should embrace them as opportunities. But we also have to be careful.”

Julie Meltzer, the school system’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction, repeated for the school board the presentation she gave at the start of the school year to teachers and administrators. She listed seven things the schools should want students to be by the time they graduate, and one of those was “responsible and involved citizens.”

“Because our democracy is at risk right now…we have to make sure there is going to be a public space for civil discourse,” she told the MDIRSS board.

“That means we have to help our kids understand how to deal with bias, how to talk to one another civilly, how to use evidence [and] how to be able to look at multiple perspectives. That is something that becomes incumbent upon the schools to do.”

Board member Kristie Losquadro said she has heard it suggested that there shouldn’t be any discussion of politics in the schools. She said that would be a disservice to students, but she acknowledged that it’s hard for teachers to be expected to discuss current issues and events without revealing their own opinions.

“The way we have approached it is to say, ‘Of course you have to talk about what’s happening in the world,’” Meltzer said. “But it isn’t about indoctrinating people or insisting that you’re right. It’s about presenting different points of view and helping the kids evaluate those and come to their conclusions.

“I think it’s really important that we assume good intent on the part of the teachers and that teachers assume it on the part of the parents and the board and the administrators,” Meltzer added.

“If we could get to that place, then we would be curious to find out what actually happened [in a classroom discussion] and what people were thinking, instead of being so ready to go on the attack.”

Board member Aaron Brown said, “Even the act of asking the question and presenting material and stimulating thought is threatening to many people, even if good intent is there.”

Tammy Tripler, another board member, said that when she was growing up, “We were taught that you need to take in all the information you can before you make your own empowered decisions. But at the end of the day, you have to agree to disagree.

“I may not like your viewpoint, but I agree with your right to have it. We have to get back to that point. We’ve lost the ability to honor someone’s right to have an opinion without coming to violence.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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