Monthly Archives: December 2016

Talking about Talking (Part II)


It’s our job

Teaching students to deliberate about issues that are in dispute is a professional responsibility for all secondary social studies teachers and all for all elementary school teachers in New York. This is not only a moral and patriotic imperative; it is explicitly stated educational policy.

New York State Social Studies Standards are divided into five strands. Standards 1 through 4 deal with the History of the United States & New York, World History, Geography, and Economics. Standard Five is called Civics, Citizenship and Government. An important link between our deliberative political nature and the New York State Social Studies Standards is found in Standard Five and particularly in a section known as “Key Idea 4” of Standard Five.

Table 1 is a modification of information tabulated by the New York State Department of Education (NYSED). Many of these indicators are touched on in Grade 12 Participation in Government classes, though there is no standardized assessment in Participation in Government as is found in Global History and United States History & Government. Current State exams tend to measure recall of subject matter and specific reasoning and interpreting skills. Tolerance, civic mindedness and informed participation in reasoned discourse, however, are not so conveniently measured. Nonetheless, when one studies these indicators, one notes a strong implication that schools should be using deliberation to teach tolerance and collaboration and that “participation” is demonstrated by proposing, negotiating, compromising, and defining. Indeed, students should be practicing these skills in order to “develop and refine participatory skills.

Table 1: New York State Indicators of Civic Engagement

Key Idea 4: The study of civics and citizenship requires the ability to probe ideas and assumptions, ask and answer analytical questions, take a skeptical attitude toward questionable arguments, evaluate evidence, formulate rational conclusions, and develop and refine participatory skills
• show a willingness to consider other points of view before drawing conclusions or making judgments

• participate in activities that focus on a classroom, school, or community issue or problem

• suggest alternative solutions or courses of action to hypothetical or historic problems

• evaluate the consequences for each alternative solution or course of action

• prioritize the solutions based on established criteria

• propose an action plan to address the issue of how to solve the problem
• respect the rights of others in discussions and classroom debates regardless of whether or not one agrees with their viewpoint

• explain the role that civility plays in promoting effective citizenship in preserving democracy

• participate in negotiation and compromise to resolve classroom, school, and community disagreements and problems
• participate as informed citizens in the political justice system and processes of the United States, including voting

• evaluate, take, and defend positions on what the fundamental values and principles of American political life are and their importance to the maintenance of constitutional democracy (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1994)

• take, defend, and evaluate positions about attitudes that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs

• consider the need to respect the rights of others, to respect others’ points of view (Adapted from The National Standards for Civics and Government, 1996)

• participate in school/classroom/ community activities that focus on an issue or problem

• prepare a plan of action that defines an issue or problem, suggests alternative solutions or courses of action, evaluates the consequences for each alternative solution or course of action, prioritizes the solutions based on established criteria, and proposes an action plan to address the issue or to resolve the problem

• explain how democratic principles have been used in resolving an issue or problem


The recently adopted New York State Social Studies Framework doubles down on these underlying Standards. Among the six Social Studies Practices included therein is “Civic Participation.” Indicators for this practice include persuading, debating, negotiating and compromising in the resolution of conflicts and differences.

Common Core ELA Standards further demonstrate the professional responsibility of all teachers to prepare students for deliberation with their fellow citizens. While this is a K-12 obligation, commencement standards make clear that we want to graduate students who are able to

Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

and to

Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible…

All of these imperatives are premised on the presumption that, through deliberation, it is possible to find consensus, to discover some previously unthought-of understanding or some higher value that transcends the positions that seemingly divide us. Obviously it would be easier to achieve these educational aims, to be successful at one’s job, if one shared this presumption. Consider it a self-evident truth.

Educators should acknowledge that characteristics of civic engagement, including the ability and willingness to deliberate about issues that are in dispute, are unequally distributed among students and that they are influenced by extracurricular factors such as race, sex, and parental attentiveness to civic issues.  The fact that some students are less informed, tolerant or comfortable with conflict over important public questions does not absolve us of our responsibility to help them meet learning standards. Besides, democracy is better served when these inequalities are ameliorated and public schools are well suited to address them.

More on that last bit in Part III.


Talking about Talking (Part I)

Aristotle deliberating on the nature of humans and other animals

Aristotle deliberating on the nature of humans and other animals

It’s Our Nature

Many New York State School districts hold one of their professional development days on Election Day and the confluence of this year’s Superintendents’ Conference Day, Election Day and Thanksgiving has made for an extended period of talking about talking. The school district in which I work elected to use an Edcamp-style conference. The Edcamp format allows for any participants to propose workshops or roundtable discussions on the spot. Topics often emerge organically, spontaneously and democratically. It’s a great way to discuss specific challenges, to share ideas about what seems to work and to find out what’s on people’s minds.

The election was on a lot of people’s minds. Several of the workshops I attended were made up of high school humanities teachers who admitted that they were sometimes afraid to introduce or entertain extended discussion of the Trump and Clinton campaigns or of some of the underlying issues that animated those campaigns. In some cases it was because students were ill-informed. In some cases students were reportedly incapable of rational discussion or of respecting their classmate’s opinions.

That night, as it became increasingly clear that Donald Trump would win the presidency, I kept an eye on Twitter and texted with friends and colleagues. Most of the people with whom I kept in touch were astonished. The next day and in the days that followed many of my educator friends were angry. A few colleagues and mentors appeared traumatized, inconsolable and, though normally civil and professional, were dropping F-bombs on social media as they tried to get past their incredulity. Others seemed to be in mourning or were exploring ways to fight for the causes they believed were under threat.

Meanwhile, we all had to head into Thanksgiving knowing that we would be breaking bread with loved ones who voted differently than us and with whom we sometimes had passionate disagreements. On the most American of holiday’s many of us abided by house rules against talking about the election.

It is a little unnatural to avoid political discourse among family members. I tend to agree with Aristotle that we are by nature political animals and that our ability and responsibility to deliberate are tied to our unique powers of speech.

“Nature” says Aristotle, “… makes nothing in vain and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech.” Speech “…is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. …and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.” (Aristotle, 1908, pp. 28-29)

The Thanksgiving holiday is over now. We are back at work. And, as educators, talking with students about controversial issues is a part of our job that we must ernestly shoulder. Moreover, we might consider the possibility that the outcome of the recent election was in part due to our failure, as a polity, to speak civilly about the issues that seem to divide us.

More on this soon…


Aristotle (1908). Politics, Book I. (Benjamin Jowett, Trans.) Oxford: Clarendon Press