I got to the point last Tuesday while watching election returns that I couldn’t focus anymore on what was unfolding on the US maps the news commentators kept describing, so I wrote a few emails, shopped for some new running shoes, made an appointment to get my hair cut–anything to distract my mind at the time.
And ever since, I’ve wanted to write something here that would help me to achieve some clarity, some vision, some understanding. I’ve started umpteen posts in my head, none of which have made their way here.
Every so often, I dip into the cacophony that makes up my social media feeds, hoping for some new understanding, but all I come away with is confusion from the many voices speaking from a stance of their own absolute rightness: Oprah says to give the President Elect a chance! Oprah is horrible for saying that! Trump says he will spend weekends at Trump Tower. Trump says he will never leave the White House because he wants to govern 24/7. Wear a safety pin to show you’re an ally. Your safety pins are meaningless and stupid. Trump’s son-in-law wrote a strong defense of his father-in-law–he’s no racist, he’s no anti-semite. Trump appoints to his transition team a known anti-semite. Obama says that if the President Elect succeeds, we all succeed. If Trump succeeds, that means all the horrible things he said he would do will actually happen so we want him to fail. Trump won’t even make it two years. Trump will be the best President ever. Abolish the electoral college. Convince the electors to vote their conscience. Faithless electors are a threat to our very democracy. The mainstream media is normalizing our President Elect. Nothing is normal about our President Elect. Trump vows to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Children with undocumented parents fear that their parents will be taken away from them. Calm down everyone–it’s going to be okay. If you’ve not walked in my shoes, you can’t tell me to calm down. You’re minimizing my very justified fears…
And on it goes.
I shut off my phone, close my browser window, take a deep breath. Look around at the physical objects on my desk: the blue Swingline stapler, the beach rock from Maine, the funky 70s-era ash tray (now collecting paper clips and such) I just recovered from the boxes of things in my parents’ garage. I begin to feel grounded again. At least for a moment or two.
How can I expect my students to see their way through all of this when I am struggling to make sense of it myself?
* * *
About three weeks ago, I asked my students to watch and study a Ted Talk in preparation for a Socratic Seminar. It was my election season lesson for them as their teacher of language arts, so I wanted my lens to be about how to navigate the complex conversation surrounding the election. They are seniors–age 17, 18. Some of them were poised at the moment to vote in their very first presidential election. We have very clear policies in our district to guide us during election seasons. We are to create safe spaces for student dialogue, not dominated by our own political views. Outside of school, we can campaign for candidates, knock on doors, make phone calls, put stickers on our cars and signs on our lawns, but in school we must remain neutral.
I didn’t want to tell my students it was an election season lesson. I wanted that focus to be a bit of a twist. I wanted to create a space for them to talk and listen to each other in conversation little facilitated by me. Socratic Seminar was the perfect forum for this.
Our text was Kathryn Schulz’s 2011 Ted Talk, “On Being Wrong.” We watched it together in class on a Monday. For that week, we were focusing on writing to explain something complicated, a key skill they would need for the magazine-style feature pieces they are working on now. We looked at mentor texts where writers worked to explain something complicated and we practiced this writing ourselves (you can see the week’s lesson plan here).
Why this text? Schulz shares what she discovered when she studied how wrongness plays out in human interaction. We don’t like thinking we are wrong about something. It doesn’t feel good. So we get stuck in a feeling of being right, and “this attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to and causes us to treat each other terribly,” explains Schulz. Rather than considering we might be wrong about something, our minds go through what she calls “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:
The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.
I love this description of what our minds do when someone disagrees with us, and this helps me to make at least some sense out of the cacophony I described at the beginning of this post. If we’re not careful, we become voices thinking we’re on the right side of things, and our sense of “rightness” keeps us in our own personal echo chambers, further dividing us, separating us, making it impossible for us to work together. Schulz goes on:
This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, and we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well that’s when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. So this is a huge practical problem.
I hoped that these ideas from the Ted Talk would resonate with my students and give them something to think about as they navigated the conversation swimming wildly around them regarding the upcoming election.
The seminar conversation happened on block day (Wednesday or Thursday), and I asked students to do the following as their ticket into the seminar, all centered on our focus for the week, explaining something complicated:
- Write the following in your writer’s notebook:
- What complicated idea is Schulz working to explain in her Ted Talk?
- What are the top three most important concepts of her explanation? Write a few sentences about each one.
The most successful seminar ticket tasks get students into the text and ask them to identify some important moments/ideas that they can then use to support their ideas in the seminar conversation. The ticket task often is very different from the opening question, which was the case for this seminar. Here was my opening question:
- What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?
- Follow up question (to pose when it seemed like the right time): Why did I ask you to consider this text and this question at this point in time (election season)?
I’m lucky to have an awesome student teacher for one of my three senior classes this year, and she was in charge of this seminar for that class. Hence, I was able to capture the class’s seminar conversation in my writer’s notebook. Here’s how a portion of it played out:
Student teacher: What ideas from this Ted Talk will you take forward with you as you become an adult who votes?
(conversation went pretty immediately to the election)
Student 1: When you align with one party, it can make you blind to other ideas.
Student teacher asked about the two party system and then asked why this text, this Ted Talk, now?
Student 2 asked if it had to do with voting.
Student 3 made a connection to what we had been discussing earlier in the week surrounding Stegner’s essay “Living Dry.”
Student 4: The world and issues–we’re being brought up to believe that it’s not okay to be wrong.
Student 5 said this reminded him of conspiracy theorists.
Student 6 had initially decided not to take part in the conversation but she was getting visibly frustrated at her desk at the outside of the conversation circle so the student teacher invited her in.
Student 6: Stop just writing off the other side. Don’t let two stupid candidates ruin relationships with people we care about. Rather than saying “you’re wrong,” maybe we need to say, “I’m wrong.”
Student 1: Our sense of righteousness… when something goes wrong, we don’t look at ourselves.
Student 7: The President is only one person who cannot represent all of us.
Student teacher: What keeps you from admitting you’re wrong? Pride?
Student 6: Politicians don’t seem able to apologize. Is it a generational thing?
Student 3: It’s not generational. It’s more who you are as a person.
Student 2: It depends on your situation in life.
Student 5: Getting criticized in public is not easy. The whole world is watching.
Student 2: Can they say they’re wrong? Will they use their supporters?
Student 3: Society conditions people that being wrong is a weakness. Candidates can’t afford that.
Student 6: Nixon and JFK: JFK in the first televised debate looked stronger. To win, you need to look strong.
Student 1: Bill Clinton’s speech on cracking down on immigration from Mexico–he got a standing ovation. Trump says it and it’s not okay.
Student 2: The political views of the country are different now.
Student 1: We’ve become more accepting of it.
Student 4 presented as an example of this Hillary’s changing stance on gay marriage.
Student 6: Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong.
Around this time the student teacher ended the seminar to provide time for the critique–starting with the students sitting on the outside of the conversation listening in. Here’s what they noticed about the conversation:
- There were strong arguments but people were open to hearing from others.
- There were some intense moments but the conversation was respectful.
- There was some real passion for the ideas shared.
- All the candidates do is bicker and fight and high schoolers in this class are better at talking about things.
- The conversation went off of the text and into talking about life.
- Props to Student 6 for speaking her mind.
- The conversation was focused on the election.
- I learned a lot.
- The students respected each other’s opinions.
- There was no shouting!
As I listened to my students talk with each other about the election and as I listened to the things they noticed about the conversation, I was hopeful. They did hone in on the big ideas in the Ted Talk and used them to think about the dialogue surrounding the election. “Look at the other side. Look at yourself before writing anything off as wrong,” said one of my students. If only this was the guiding principle of political discourse…
I usually keep my mouth shut during Socratic Seminar conversations (other than for posing the opening question, for making space for students to speak who are having a difficult time entering their voices into the conversation, to end the seminar conversation, and to facilitate the critique). But with this seminar, I did get on a bit of a soap box. I asked my students to pay attention to the timber of the conversation about the election, to think about Schulz’s series of unfortunate assumptions and to look for places where people write off those who disagree with them as ignorant/stupid/evil, to be the ones who are above the fray, to seek to connect with people who think differently than they do, to understand where others are coming from and to value the experiences of others rather than minimizing them. If we all demonize those who disagree with us, we’ll never be able to move forward together.
I know this is difficult work, especially when it means connecting across a chasm that seems to widen more and more. But I know my students can do it.
I know we as a country have to.
* * *
My father passed away very suddenly in February. He is the person I want to turn to now to help find a way through the mess we’re in. He dedicated his career to improving the lives of others–from the pulpit during the 60s, from non-profit organizations for nearly 30 years, and from the college classroom for almost 15 years where he taught fundraising and financial management for non-profits to students who wanted to save the world. He taught his last class the day he died. One of his students even took a photo of him that day. It was just a snapshot of the room to text her brother back quickly to let him know where she was. She had no idea it would be the last photo taken of my dad:
He is listening intently. One of his students must be speaking. He used to say to me, “Sarah, those students are going to change the world.” You can see it here–he really does believe that.
I share this with you because I know that my father–a bleeding heart liberal to the nth degree–would have been devastated by the election results, but he would have gone right into his classroom the next day and continued his work. He would have reminded his students that they can have an impact, that they need to care about the lives of others and work to improve them, that they need to connect across divisions in politics to work together to solve the problems of humanity.
I did not know three weeks ago that the cacophony would be louder now, that it would be even more important for my students to be able to engage in conversation with others that hinges on listening, on questioning one’s own standpoint, on knowing that we humans tend to get attached to our own sense of rightness and this keeps us from being able to work together to solve problems.
Our standards ask us to teach students to not just speak but listen. Our standards ask us to teach students to read widely–informational texts that describe our world and artistic texts that invite us to cultivate empathy for the experiences of others. Our standards ask us to help students to discern bias, to determine which sources are credible, to effectively manage the flood of information coming at us from everywhere. Our standards ask us to teach students to write to inform, to argue and persuade, and to use story to communicate important ideas. We are lucky that this is our work–to teach our students to read our world so they may write their future–our future–within it. This work is more important now than ever. Let’s keep at it.
I can only hope that Schulz’s closing words will continue to resonate for them:
We think this one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead. George Bush thought he was going to invade Iraq, find a bunch of weapons of mass destruction, liberate the people and bring democracy to the Middle East. And something else happened instead. And Hosni Mubarak thought he was going to be the dictator of Egypt for the rest of his life, until he got too old or too sick and could pass the reigns of power onto his son. And something else happened instead. […]
You need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say,“Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”