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Talking Civics in Remote Classes in 2020: What Could Go Wrong?
Students in Candace Fikis's class at West Chicago Community High School hold up red, yellow, or green objects to show if they agree, oppose, or are undecided about the topic under debate in their remote class. Courtesy of Candace Fikis

Getting students to talk respectfully about issues like gun rights, race relations, and a polarizing presidential campaign can be a tall order, even under the best of circumstances. This school year, with millions of students forced to attend classes online only, is not the best of circumstances. 

Students are almost certain to have a tougher time communicating and feeling comfortable sharing contradictory views when they can't read each other's body language and may not have met the teacher—or each other—outside of a Zoom square. Add to that the not-always polite mode of discourse online, mixed with the historically high levels of political polarization, and you could end up with a situation that one teacher described as her "worst nightmare," where someone breaks down crying in class.  

"It takes longer to form a classroom community in virtual classes," said Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's school of education who has studied the role of politics in the classroom.  But she said, "It's even more important. All the natural [aspects] of community, all those things that can happen so easily in a face-to-face classroom can't happen as easily virtually."

Respectful discussion will be especially important in the run-up to a contentious presidential election, which could wind up contested, due to an unprecedented volume of mail-in votes. President Donald Trump has said, without evidence, that this may lead to massive voter fraud.

What's more, Trump has attacked what he terms "left-wing indoctrination" in history classes. In particular, he's lambasted curriculum linked to the New York Times' 1619 project, which sought to put a spotlight on the role slavery had in the nation's founding.

Giving Students a Voice

One helpful strategy for collegial debate and discussion in a virtual classroom: Allowing students to help set the classroom norms. 

Teachers may want to start the year by asking students what they think a respectful online discussion would "look like, feel like, sound like," said Mary Ellen Daneels, a civics instructional specialist at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago, which works with schools across Illinois to improve civics education. (The foundation helped underwrite an Education Week event on civics education earlier this year.) Then, teachers should allow students to set the rules of the road for those kinds of conversations. "That gives students voice and ownership in a very productive way," she said. 

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen.

If America is experiencing a civic crisis, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

This article is part of an ongoing effort by Education Week to understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens.

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Daneels also suggests that teachers let parents-who may be in the room during a heated Zoom session-know what they are trying to accomplish. Explain why the discussion is done in a nonpartisan format and why it is important.

"Inform parents about what you're going to be doing with this online learning and make them part of the process," Daneels said. 

Many teachers who had to jump quickly into all-remote instruction last spring said they were able to rely on the relationships they had already built with students through the fall and winter. 

But that opportunity to build relationships in person does not exist for many teachers this year because their schools have started with full-time remote learning. Candace Fikis, a social studies teacher at West Chicago Community High School, plans to start off the year placing extra emphasis on creating a collaborative, respectful environment. 

"The hardest part of that is going to be building that climate online, so students feel safe," she said. "I'm going to need to spend more time at the beginning of the year getting to know kids, teaching them how they can debate, discuss, argue, challenge" in a respectful way. "When you're in person, the kids just kind of know how to be polite, but with online and social media, you kind of have a little barrier."

Similarly, Chris Johnson, who teaches at Rowva High School in Illinois, said he has "slowed down a bit" this year. He's spending more time than usual trying to build a classroom community, in part by explaining to his students his own motivations for keeping discussion respectful and evidence-based. 

He showed them a clip from the TV show "The Newsroom" that argues America is no longer the greatest country in the world, in part, because of political polarization.

"To be honest, as adults we haven't exactly rocked it in terms of [civil discourse]," he said. "I want to teach them to be better than we are." 

Easing Into Discussions

Both Fikis and Johnson plan to start the year modeling discussions of less controversial topics, so that students get the hang of communicating respectfully, before moving on to issues like gun control that tend to spark passionate debate. Fikis's students will consider whether schools should be open while COVID-19 is still a health threat. And Johnson is going with an even less controversial issue: Which is better-pancakes or waffles? 

Another challenge: It's going to be hard for Fikis to use what a colleague of hers calls the "spidey sense" to figure out how students feel about the discussion. "You can see how the mood changes and if kids feel comfortable or not in a classroom." That is missing, she said, when you're looking at 30 boxes on a Zoom screen.

To get a better feel for the classroom climate, Fikis may have students fill out a quick survey at the end of each week, asking them to rate how they felt the discussions went on a scale from one to 10. And she plans to hold office hours so that kids have a space to get help or talk about something they may be reluctant to share in a larger group.   

She also plans to use a technique she employs in class: Having students comment on each other's views in Google classroom. Just like in person, she'll show kids examples of "good," "bad," and "ugly" online comments. 

"They always laugh at the 'ugly'" she said. But then they admit they've seen plenty of similar sentiments in virtual discussions. 

Of course, there's also a flip side. Some students actually find it easier to express themselves in a virtual setting.

"We're hearing from some students that they felt more comfortable participating online than they did face to face," Hess said. "You're literally not sitting right next to people. That literal distance causes some people who are intimidated in face-to-face classes to feel safer."

Zoom Adaptations

Some of the techniques that work to get students to discuss hot button issues in a respectful way can also be used in Zoom classrooms, with a few twists, Daneels said. 

For instance, she recommends a strategy called "structured academic controversy," in which students work in teams of four and consider a hotly debated question. For example, students might tackle the question of whether the electoral college should still be used to determine who is elected president. Two students are required to take one position, and the other two are assigned the other position-no matter what their personal beliefs are. Each team tries to convince the other, and then they switch perspectives, and try again. Finally, the group works to come to a consensus, informed by their own take on the topic. The format can still work online, Daneels said, since Zoom and other platforms allow for "breakout rooms" where students can do group work. 

Another exercise-"philosophical chairs"-can be tweaked for an online-only environment. Students are given a topic to debate that has a relatively clear yes or no answer, such as "should we raise the federal minimum wage to $20 an hour?" Students read a common text and come up with their opinion - yes, no, or undecided. Then the class holds a discussion, where kids argue their own position. 

If this activity is taking place in person, students are encouraged to move around the room as their position changes based on their classmates' arguments. On Zoom, kids could change their username to "Yes," "No," or "Undecided"-or they could hold up a green, yellow, or red object to reflect their thinking as the discussion progresses. The class could use the Zoom chatbox to respond to arguments in real time. 

Students can also respond to a prompt in Padlet or on a Google jam board or another online forum for discussion and write back to one another silently. That's especially good for a prompt that might be "more emotionally charged," Daneels said.  

Having students talk about an issue in small groups can be great for discussion, but it isn't easy to pull off when all the students are remote, said Matt Wdowiarz, who teaches 5th grade at Winfield Central School in Illinois, near Chicago. 

"The challenge is going to be finding ways to break out the groups fast enough," Wdowiarz said. "It's going to be a matter of being a little bit more patient with the flow of time. There's so much going on right now with just how do we do things efficiently with the tech we have. That's been the dominant struggle."

That's why Daneels encourages teachers to just start with one activity and master it, and allow students to master it, before moving on. 

"If you're getting stressed out using this new technology, your students are probably getting stressed out using this new technology," Daneels said. 

What's more, teachers shouldn't be afraid to tell their students that creating a classroom community and teaching content online doesn't come naturally to them. 

"It's really good for us to say as teachers we need to figure this out together because this is new for all of us," Johnson said. "Kids may offer suggestions of new techniques or tools to use, but it's also good modeling. Being a little bit vulnerable and saying 'I don't know how to do this, and 'this is hard for me, too' is a good way to connect with students. If we're teaching civics, we gotta practice what we preach."

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