“I want to wear my mask, but I don’t want people to view me as a liberal!”
A colleague of mine made this statement the day after the district I work in decided to go along with a court restraint on our state’s mask mandate in Illinois last spring. When I heard this comment, it disheartened me.
Sadly, it didn’t surprise me.
Most importantly, it motivated me to write this—and reminded me of what I truly believe is our biggest challenge as educators in today’s American culture:
The fact that my conservative colleague’s response to deciding whether or not to wear a mask was solidly motivated by the political and cultural pressures in their world should be mind-boggling to an objective person. But so many of us have found ourselves completely engrossed in the pressures our tribes create for us. (Tribes, in this context, refer to groups that share cultural, ideological, and political beliefs and commonalities.)
We would rather our desired tribe acknowledge us than do what we know in our hearts to be the right thing or the sensible thing or the factual thing. That’s what a polarized culture does.
It creates an irrational existence—an existence that becomes much less about truth and facts and way more about emotions and acceptance.
And, at its most serious state, it ultimately can create an entire societal breakdown.
There are so many examples of this divided tribalism going on in the world around us, from elections to voting rights to gas prices to abortion issues to gun rights to international wars to so many other things. (Have any appeared at the top of your head as you read this?)
We so often find ourselves in a binary choice situation—rooting for our team or risking removal from it.
Alarmed by these statements?
Well, quite honestly, you should be. But we must continue seeking solutions and remain hopeful that a better time awaits. As teachers, we have the tools to make a difference. And that is powerful and exciting. And when I say as teachers, I mean ALL teachers!
Seeking solutions to end damaging polarization doesn’t just land in the laps of our middle and high school social studies and civics teachers in America. All educators at all grade levels and subject areas can be a part of these solutions. So, if you are a non-civic teacher reading this, please pay close attention to this next sentence:
FIGHTING POLARIZATION IN OUR CULTURE IS AN ISSUE THAT GOES BEYOND THE WORK OF A CIVICS OR GOVERNMENT CLASS! WE NEED ALL HANDS ON DECK!
As teachers, we can fight against a polarized culture by building consensus. My colleague Michelle Blanchet and I have been on a quest to develop strategies and skills that look to break down polarization and combat it. As emphasized above, you can use many strategies at all levels and subject areas.
Just as teaching our students not to be bullies or advocating and teaching skills for their social and emotional well-being spans the entire gambit of grade levels and content areas, so is teaching students to build consensus in our society.
For example, one way we can minimize polarization is to teach students of all ages, levels, and subject areas how to be more knowledgeable on how they digest information. We can provide our students with skillsets to decipher fake news versus factual information.
One of many ways to promote this skill is through the Who’s the Expert? activity.
Here’s what you can do in YOUR classroom:
Of course, make them applicable to your grade and content area. The cues in this activity could be things like someone’s occupation, life experiences, and educational opportunities connecting them to a particular topic. Ultimately, after the students have reflected on whom they feel might be credible or not in the various subjects, you can move the conversation toward media sources themselves.
Are they credible or not in how they report information?
Knowing a source’s reliability will most certainly strengthen your students’ awareness of things that may be agenda-oriented and tribal in nature.
As educators, we are massive influencers on tomorrow’s leaders. Let’s teach them to avoid polarization that fuels an environment that pushes people to care more about tribal acceptance than a truthful existence.
We can do this!
We HAVE to do this!