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Educators Rise Above Political Divisions: The Power of the Barriers to Bonds Study Group

Category:Educator Advice
Pablo Wolfe|July 24, 2023

I created The Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators (CCEE), a nationwide K-12 community of practice devoted to civic education pedagogy, amid the COVID maelstrom. Over the past three years, we've been gathering virtually in professional book clubs, an online forum, and study groups to support one another in bringing civic education to all schools. In response to the polarized climate in schools, a cohort of CCEE teachers formed a study group called Barriers to Bonds, composed of colleagues working in politically charged environments. The idea was for these teachers to support one another as they contended with the effects of aggressive political discourse on their classrooms.

Among the members of Barriers to Bonds are teachers who have personally experienced fraught situations in their day-to-day work. There's a teacher who had the books on her desk photographed, and then the pictures were shared with a local chapter of Moms for Liberty by a custodian who aligned with the group. Another teacher joined after being reported to her board of education for reading an article about race with her students. One teacher even came to us in tears after none of her colleagues were willing to collaborate with her on a high school elective devoted to social movements.

These educators could have retreated from local pressure, and few would have blamed them; instead, they organized to support one another as they pushed for intellectual freedom in their classrooms. They sought to engage in dialogue where the context was least hospitable. We structured Barriers to Bonds meetings so that, first, we would collectively agree on a specific practice, such as creating norms for discussion. Then, each of us would outline our individual plans to implement the practice before our next meeting. We allowed two months for group members to try out the practice, and subsequently, we would come together to share stories and lessons from our experiences. This approach fostered a supportive environment where we encouraged and learned from each other while exploring new approaches. Through this process, Barriers to Bonds members have seen the power of practices essential in constructive dialogue: understanding the cognitive mechanisms that produce our biases, grounding dialogue in personal relationships, the importance of structures and norms when dealing with contested issues, and the power of empathetic questioning.

When my colleagues approach members of their communities with the question, "What life experiences inform your views on this?" they signal receptiveness to the other person's perspective, disarming someone who might have come ready to fight. My colleagues would refer to this as "calling in," an approach that allows one to maintain their personal beliefs while still valuing a potentially oppositional community member. Barriers to Bonds members have discussed how to hold our ideas close while holding people closer.

I see many opportunities to apply constructive dialogue in our schools and school communities.

  • Teachers could guide students as they analyze the moral foundations of their ideas and explore how their life experiences have led them to those particular foundations.
  • Teachers could build towards engaging in dialogues with students about issues of governance in the world by beginning with issues of governance in the school itself.
  • Teachers could also suggest implementing constructive dialogue techniques in the running of school board meetings to diminish the pontificating that happens when community members are offered minimally-structured soap-box time as opposed to structured engagement with other community members.

As difficult as our political moment is, the brave teachers I have worked with give me hope that we can continue to pursue civil discourse even in contexts where fears have been stoked. You can learn more about three of the educators in this collective and how they've handled controversy in their respective classrooms on the podcast series, Conflict and Consensus: Three Teachers on the Pursuit of Civic Learning, available at Heinemann Publishing.

We owe it to our students, and our democracy, to meet the moment with constructive dialogue. But as I've learned through Barriers to Bonds, we can't do it alone; we need to organize and support one another in this risky, emotionally taxing work.


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