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Here’s how Wisconsin teachers are combatting political divisiveness in classrooms

Here's how Wisconsin teachers are combatting political divisiveness in classrooms

A student convinced her dad to vote in the midterm elections, citing information she learned in Casey Farner’s social studies class at Vel Phillips Memorial High School. Farner is among many Wisconsin teachers trying to encourage civil engagement in an often divisive political landscape.

The day after the Nov. 8 midterms, Casey Farner asked his students at Memorial High School to write down their reactions to the results.

He had some anxiety about the project heading into the election, given the divisive nature of politics. “We were definitely on edge,” he said. But the temperature turned out to be lower than after previous elections.

“Ultimately it produced a mixed bag of emotions and of predictions,” Farner said. “A lot of people said yes, I’m scared of the future, but I’m optimistic knowing that I have the tools to remain engaged, to teach other people.”

In a state that is often center stage of this hyper politicization, Wisconsin teachers are working to combat the divisiveness that continues to plague American politics. But instead of shying away from the discourse, they’re leaning into it and trying to create civil engagement in politics.

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Students at Kewaskum High School southeast of Fond du Lac were curious about the midterm results, social studies teacher Luke Piwoni said. His class dissected how the state could elect both a Democratic governor and a Republican senator. He said it was a good teaching moment on the complexities of Wisconsin politics.

These were different than the questions he faced in 2020, when misinformation about the legitimacy of the election results ran rampant. Part of the change this year may have been because of the divided results or because the candidates conceded, Piwoni said.

But it’s also a testament to how students are being taught to engage in politics.

Teachers focus on showing students how to form opinions and have civil conversations. They prioritize learning about the systems in place and how political moments happen, rather than fighting over which side may be right or wrong.

“Everything really boils down to relationships and how we go about establishing those in the beginning of the year,” said Chris Wiegman, a social studies teacher at Oregon High School. “How you go about establishing a culture of curiosity but also a culture of respect. For me, that’s my number one priority.”

At the beginning of the year, Farner’s students take a political ideology self test, which helps him be more intentional in conversations and interactions with students. Students in Piwoni’s class create their own political parties and platforms, which allows students to focus on the issues rather than party allegiance.

Going into the midterms, many classes studied political ads and candidate platforms, and learned how to analyze media and scope out misinformation.

Many teachers lean into hot-button issues because it promotes engagement and serves as a good way to try to discuss heated issues in civil ways.

Greg Mawer’s students at Memorial High School and Wiegman’s students at Oregon have both been able to respectfully discuss the historical drivers that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the powers of the Supreme Court, and opinions on abortion.

Here's how Wisconsin teachers are combatting political divisiveness in classrooms

Casey Farner, social studies teacher, instructs his students on a media and politics assignment at Vel Phillips Memorial High School. His students studied the midterm elections, including dissecting political ads and campaign platforms.

“I think in an academic setting, students understand that there’s value in discussing and understanding,” Mawer said. “They recognize that coming into class and looking at things academically is very different than having a debate with someone you disagree with in a different setting.”

A hands-on simulation called PurpleState being used for research at UW-Madison’s School of Education aims to give students experience in dissecting political messaging and discourse.

“With schools we have the opportunity to combat some of the things that lead to polarization,” said Jeremy Stoddard, professor and director of the secondary teacher education program at UW, who created the tool.

In the simulation, students are shown different polling data and demographics that they then use to create political media campaigns for targeted audiences.

The goal is to help students be informed and aware of how political messages are formed and delivered, and make them more confident and engaged citizens, Stoddard said.

Teachers also have to adapt to a student’s environment when combatting political discourse.

Echo chambers are possible in communities that lean one way politically. Democratic voices may dominate classrooms in Madison, a largely blue area of the state. But in Kewaskum, in an area that leans Republican, the conservative voices may be louder.

Teachers listen to students’ opinions, making sure students with less popular beliefs or opinions can still safely share their thoughts. And they make it a point to try to explain the arguments from other sides of issues.

“I think it’s important to set that stage because if otherwise they just believe that all conversations are like this everywhere, then that’s doing them a disservice,” Piwoni said.

There are of course perspectives that may be harmful to some students,  said. “So you also have to set boundaries as well for students,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is that as much as we would love to all get together and live in absolute harmony at all times, students are going to meet people that they really strongly disagree with in life. And our job in education,” Mawer said, “has to be preparing for that eventuality.”

While the temperature may have dropped in the latest election, the political discourse that has settled in the country isn’t expected to go anywhere. So is teaching civil discourse in classrooms the way to solve it?

A positive result is that students are becoming more engaged. One student was able to convince her dad to vote, crediting the information she learned in Farner’s class. Other students have gone home and convinced their parents to delete Facebook or stop watching cable news, Stoddard said.

Here's how Wisconsin teachers are combatting political divisiveness in classrooms

Memorial High School social studies teacher Casey Farner said that after the midterm election, his students said they were scared of the future, but optimistic that they were learning the tools to remain engaged. Farner and other teachers in Wisconsin are working to teach students to discuss politics civilly.

“I think that the kids have done a great job just being grounded in remembering that they have a voice, they’re going to have a voice, and their one vote means just as much as my one vote, as much as their neighbor’s vote,” Farner said. “And I think that’s powerful for them.”

There is also a “fatigue” among young people about how divisive things have become, Mawer said. “When you see the groups of people who are disagreeing so adamantly and sometimes very unreasonably, to me that reflects a worldview that is not of the generation that we’re dealing with right now in high school,” he said.

But teachers also recognize that the issue of political divisiveness is too big a challenge to tackle in the classroom alone.

“Maybe the hope is that the generation coming out of school will take a different approach,” Stoddard said. “But I think in the immediate effect, it’s a huge challenge I don’t see shifting any time soon.”

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