Civil Discourse in the U.S. (Part 2) | Alabama’s Social Studies Teachers Share How They Create Lessons in Civility

We asked some of our A+ College Ready social studies teachers this question: How can we as educators use the classroom as a way to appropriately and effectively deal with some of the recent civil unrest and discourse that has been occurring across the globe and in our own country over the past several months?

Below are some of the responses, demonstrating how the issues that our students hear about outside the classroom provide great opportunities to teach some civics.


Thomas Hammock, 7th-grade Teacher at Helena Middle School

I really like using current events to teach Civics, Geography, and just work on general reasoning skills. Because the events are current, it creates good connections on how the ideas in class are applied in real life. Students are often more engaged as well as many of them have opinions on these current issues they feel strongly about.


I feel one of the most important things for a teacher dealing with current events is to be as aware and well versed in the situations as possible. I find students often enter a conversation with half-truths, or only one side of the issues, so the ability to describe the fullness of the reality is necessary to establish the facts of what is happening (not always easy, especially with the current climate of “alternative facts”).


If “alternative facts” come up and are an impediment to civil discussion, I use it as an opportunity to discuss perspective and how different viewpoints can see the same event/fact/data in different ways. I like using non-political examples to explain this because students are sometimes very attached to their perspective and cannot see around it.


For example: FACT – the Cubs won the World Series. Cubs’ fan perspective is “Great!” Indians’ fan perspective is “Terrible!” Therefore the same fact can have different reactions, and neither is “right” or “wrong.” I actually think this is probably the most important lesson we can teach students in Civics: to understand there are differences of opinion based on perspective, and there is not always a “right” or “wrong” response.


If passions are too high to have a civil discourse on the topic, I try to deflect from the issue and focus students on how the issue relates to the study of civics. The immigration issue is great for this right now, dealing with executive powers, limits to them, and checks and balances as the executive and judicial branches clash.


Mike Cavner, AP History Teacher at East Limestone High School

We organized a school wide mock election where we took kids through the whole process of registration, and we voted using Mac books.
Our tech people set it up where we could break down the demographic results. Everyone in my dept. dedicated one day a week to politics and the election.


When we received the results, we broke the results down and applied the results to real-time events. I really feel like this added to the civility I experienced in my AP classes /post election.


I knew there would be issues regardless of the outcome, so I had planted some seeds in my class discussions leading up to the election.  For example, I spent time on voter fraud and election propaganda in the weeks prior to the election, and we also had an assignment dealing with the debates and fallacies. I feel like my kids had a little bit of extra ammunition that allowed them to analyze information and think for themselves. It has obviously been a great time to explore credible sources as well. I am weaving this into every lesson – the current state of affairs and the patterns of our past.


Rhonda Rush, Social Studies Teacher at Homewood High School

I highly recommend starting early in the course actually teaching civil discourse.  I have included a link to a civil discourse website that has some good ideas.


Civil Discourse in the Classroom (from Teaching Tolerance)


Students are often not taught how to have a civil discussion and back up their assertions with evidence.  Court cases make a great source for such discussions.  The Street Law website has some summaries of landmark cases that lend themselves to such discussions and naturally fit within the curriculum.


I think civil discourse is one of the most valuable things we can teach in a social studies classroom.  I think it is well worth our time to do it.


Joshua Grammer, 6th-grade U.S. History Teacher at Hale County Middle School

I have consistently heard this (inappropriate, one-sided and uninformed comments) from some of my students for the past several years.


Now that I have access to Chromebooks, I have taken time in class to present different sides of debates. When a kid expresses an opinion like that, I tell them to say nothing more about it until they can present proof of the claim.


Proving a claim is a great way to challenge students to support their arguments, (and can also challenge them to open their minds to other perspectives). With the two scenarios I presented, it is usually a simple search, but if we delve into immigration issues or taxes, then the proof is a lot more fun to research.


I have taken some technology days to send students on a hunt for differing opinions on the same subject. For example: Find an article that is for building the wall between the U.S. and Mexico and then find an article against it. Explain your findings and your opinion after reading these articles.


Oren Barclay, Talladega County Schools

I have students often quoting fake news stories or untrue statements that they see on Social Media in the classroom.  The approach I have taken is to not become combative or defensive about them but rather to show them how to check the accuracy of certain statements by using Snopes and other sources to check the accuracy of the statements that they are making.


Kate Woodall, Park Crossing High School

I’ve had to just be sure that I am only presenting the facts to the students. Tensions are so high in politics at this time that by presenting the facts to the student I eliminate the possibility that they can question the credibility of the statement. I also give them sources to check and am sure to remind them of bias in news sources.


Thomas Lamb, 10th & 11th-grade U.S. History Teacher

My classes discuss current events each week. However, due to recent events — the inauguration of the president and the beginning of his first 100 days — things are truly getting interesting.


First I explain to my students that the recent events reflect America being America – and unique country like no other.


America is currently in the cycle of Isolationism, and idea that first began with Thomas Jefferson and the Embargo Act. America was disrespected, not appreciated and, well … weird to the rest of the world. America is still weird, which is what makes the United States special.


Our students should understand this. Although things seem weird at the moment, America has always been strange and that’s what makes us appealing to world. Plus, we have this little thing called checks and balances, which govern our country and help prevent tyranny. So thanks to our Supreme Court, they can decide if the actions of the president and the legislature are constitutional or not. Presidents have, at times in our history, ignored the constitution; Jefferson, Jackson (ignored the Supreme Court), Van Ruin/Buren, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, etc. But our government has endured and will continue to endure, because it is for the people by the people.

Civil Discourse in the U.S. (Part 1) | The Opportunities it Presents Educators