In the middle of one of the most divisive political climates in recent history, Greenhill School is trying to turn down the temperature of political discussions in the classroom.
Greenhill teachers have been encouraged to stimulate discussions between students about controversial issues in a way that upholds the core values; honor, respect and compassion. The academic administration does not have specific rules for teachers, but they have established guidelines for teachers to use while leading classroom discussions.
“We are not asking our teachers not to think or to shut down,” said Jason Yaffe, head of academics. “We are asking our teachers to provide more questions than answers. What teachers need to be really mindful of is that they are in a really influential position, whether you are working with eight-year-olds or 18-year-olds.”
Greenhill is part of a broader, progressive educative system that has been working to make learning and classroom discussions more inclusive. The intent of these guidelines is to create meaningful discourse instead of echo chambers that drown out minority voices.
“It is the teacher’s responsibility to encourage critical thinking and let students provide their own conclusions,” said Mr. Yaffe. In order for that to happen, teachers really need to check their own agenda or any political bias they might have at the door.”
Before class conversation even begins, teachers are encouraged to work with the class to establish guidelines for discussion to ensure that all student voices and perspectives are acknowledged. Discussions of any kind, including political discussions, should be relevant to the lesson being taught. Additionally, teachers must maintain the mindset of a facilitator, not a participator when they are leading discussions, said Mr. Yaffe.
“Discussions should be facilitated by the teacher who ensures that the tenor of the discussions exemplifies our core principles of honor, compassion, and respect. Especially respect,” said Dr. Karen Bradberry, director of equity and inclusion. “This includes respecting everyone’s right to have and share their positions without the threat of retaliation or insult.”
Greenhill Teachers are encouraged to recognize the differences in individual students’ backgrounds and share the importance of an unbiased classroom experience free from judgement.
“If a teacher provides balanced evidence and asks questions and encourages students to explore it and is okay with students arriving at their own conclusions, it’s not my job to say its wrong,” said Mr. Yaffe. “I can question it, but just as much as I should question another interpretation.”
Administrators have concluded that classroom conversations should allow students to share their own perspectives and facilitate discussion between students with different perspectives. Teachers are encouraged to teach students how to construct a logical argument backed up by evidence, but not to influence their conclusions, said Dr. Bradberry.
“As an independent school that is technically exempt from federal and state educational policies, we are offering students a culturally responsive educational experience that increases their level of cultural competence and thus preparing our students to effectively navigate the diverse world beyond our gates,” said Dr. Bradberry.
According to Dr. Amy Breise, department chair of U.S. history, teachers have expressed that the current political polarization makes it more difficult for them to teach unbiasedly and for conversations in the classroom to play out effectively. The majority liberal viewpoint prevents many other voices from being heard within discussions, said Dr. Bresie.
“I think Greenhill tends to be locked in, in some ways, to a very liberal viewpoint,” said Dr. Bresie. I think that those are often the views in class that get discussed. But I think it’s too bad sometimes, because conversations are always richer when you have multiple points of view. So when we have these things going on conversations can sometimes get very one-sided, and that’s too bad.”
Greenhill administrators are encouraging teachers to steer discussions in the right direction and model effective discourse. However, administrators do recognize that teachers are going to have their own opinions and want teachers to work to leave those opinions out of discussions.
“The truth is that no knowledge or curricula are apolitical, and much of what is used in curricula today is shaped by biases, omissions, and stereotypes,” wrote Nana Osei-Kofi, Sandra Richards, and Daryl Smith in a study about inclusivity in classrooms, published in 2008 by the University of South Carolina Education department.
Schools around the country are trying to find the balance between open dialogue for students and creating a respectful platforms for all differences. That balance is sometimes difficult to attain when students’ perspectives rub up against Greenhill’s core values, especially when many common place national opinions involve the denigration of different social groups. That’s why it is so important to recognize the inherent bias of teachers and students, alike .
“It is supposed to be a place that teaches people to think not necessarily what to think,” said Dr. Bresie. “No one perfect, but I think the general idea is that trying to indoctrinate is not acceptable and that you’re supposed to be neutral. That being said, there is also the idea that if something is counter to human rights, ideas and values that we hold, we can call out that.”
The hope is that students are able to express their beliefs and opinions and are able to respectfully question the ideas of other. Traditionally, these types of discussions have been focused in the History and English departments. However, because many divisive issues affect other departments as well, the administration believes that teachers in every department should be prepared to have these discussions.
“I understand why some teachers might not be comfortable because they might not be humanities teachers,” Mr. Yaffe said. “But if you are talking about a science teacher, how do you have the same discussion about climate when people have different conclusions about global warming?”
A more comprehensive, campus wide accepting attitude towards political disagreements could go a long way to fixing deep divides within our school and within our country. The important steps that have already been taken, encourages students to fearlessly engage in discourse.
As Dr. Bradberry said, “If we truly commit to listen to learn, we always come out smarter than we were before we started. Always.”
Story by Caroline Greenstone and Cameron Kettles
Photos by Caroline Greenstone