Q: What are some strategies for working with students who come to my class with ingrained political ideologies and misconceptions about U.S. history?
Teachers usually figure out quickly that, when it comes to students who hold misconceptions, bombarding them with facts doesn’t work. Often, this tactic backfires, resulting in students reaffirming their unsubstantiated beliefs. There are two ways a teacher could approach this dynamic that will support all students. First, start with primary sources. Providing a counternarrative with primary sources not only supports academic rigor but also provides a powerful look into the past from those who lived it. For example, a student who espouses a “states’ rights” cause of the Civil War has a much harder time explaining that reasoning when confronted with primary sources such as “The Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander Stephens or South Carolina’s declaration for why it felt justified to secede from the Union.
A second way to engage students is to explicitly teach how to critically question a text. Move beyond the usual who, what, when, where and why. Instead, ask students to consider a couple of questions: Whose voice is being heard—or not heard—and how does this affect my understanding of the issue? Who is the author, and what is their relationship to this issue? These questions can help students more closely analyze texts, especially more recent texts they might encounter online.
Q: I want to talk about voting in class, but I know that a number of my students have parents who are incarcerated or who are ex-felons. How should I handle it?
Don’t shy away from bringing relevant topics to the classroom because of students’ personal connections; these connections can provide an even more powerful learning experience for all students. In this case, you can introduce voting rights as a topic of inquiry. Have students share what they know and then research these questions: Who has the right to vote? Who doesn’t? Why don’t people vote? Why do people lose the right to vote?
After students have presented their findings, they should do something with their new knowledge. Voting is one way to actively participate in our diverse democracy. So, challenge students to consider what they learned about why people don’t vote. Then, have them create plans that will address ways to protect and strengthen voting rights and increase voter registration and participation. One student might focus on how ID laws can suppress voter turnout and create a public education initiative directed at policy leaders. Another student might focus on the movement to restore voting rights to those who were or are still incarcerated and create a campaign to get their state to restore such rights. The use of inquiry and action planning will allow students to engage in dialogue and share as they feel comfortable, without putting anyone on the spot.