The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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Talking About Civics and Politics at Poly: It’s Time to Listen


Back in the 1990s, the most contentious political debates students had in school were no more heated than arguments about which sports team should win a big game, according to History Teacher and Director of Service Learning Elijah Sivin. Today, in our highly polarized world, the worst-case-scenario political arguments sound nothing like debates over whether the Yankees are better than the Red Sox. Some students are afraid to express their views or ask questions, and teachers agree that teaching about controversial topics without expressing their views can be a challenge. 

In today’s hyper-polarized political world, many Poly students and teachers agree that even though political conversations are hard, Poly needs to have more of them. Upper School History Teacher Beth Eby said, “We are in a particularly heightened space and there are a lot of anxieties across the political spectrum…therefore, it is the best time to be having these conversations.” 

It’s not only conversations about hot-button political issues that some students want to have more of. Many students also feel they do not have enough knowledge about civics, which includes the fundamentals of government and citizen involvement, including voting. Sophomore Anna Brandmeyer said she wants to learn more about civics because she is not very well-educated on the topic, even though she will soon be able to vote.

Sivin said the fact that students will soon be able to participate in democracy is precisely why schools need to educate them about civics. He said, “The system we have depends on the idea that we have an informed citizenry” and we have to educate future generations so they can participate and make the changes they want to. Sivin’s belief that schools need to prepare students for voting is supported by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which has found that students who learn about civics, including the logistics of registering and voting, in school are more likely to be active voters as adults.

It’s not just Poly that is not fully preparing its students to be informed citizens. According to a 2017 The Economist article, civics education has been on the decline in the United States since the 1980s because “parents and politicians became concerned about schools ‘politicizing’ the classroom.” The result of America’s lack of civics education is evident in a 2024 Fox News survey, which revealed that only 25 percent of American adults are “very confident” that they understand how the United States government works, and only half know that Congress writes laws.

Still, some students and administrators think there are limits on how much civics and politics belong in the classroom. Junior Breanna Basso said schools should not teach any aspect of civics or politics. “Schools can inflict their opinions onto the students, rather than letting the students learn for themselves,” said Basso. While Head of the Upper School Sarah Bates does believe Poly should educate students about all topics, including civics, she said Poly employees are expressly prohibited from sharing political views with students. 

Some teachers, though, believe the line between political and non-political topics is blurry. Eby said that in her “Women and Gender History” class, “We’re talking about things like the history of birth control. We’re talking about court cases that have led to the legalization or limits to abortion and women’s healthcare. Those are obviously politically charged conversations.” Head of the History Department Virginia Dillon agreed that “it feels like everything is political.” Dillon acknowledged that for some, LGBTQ rights, for example, are “a political issue and for some people that’s a human rights issue.” Sivin said that when it comes to what is and is not political, there is a “huge gray area and people have very different and very strong opinions” about what falls in the middle.

While the place of political views in the classroom is controversial at Poly, Poly students and teachers tend to agree that Poly should offer a class dedicated to civics and government. Brandmeyer said Poly should have a mandatory civics course, while Basso said civics should be offered but not required. Sivin said Poly needs a dedicated civics course because while history teachers try to talk about civics topics in their classes, there are “a lot of things we need to do but don’t get around to.”

Poly is already taking steps to address potential gaps in learning about civics. All history teachers in grades five and above are incorporating a lesson about the upcoming election in their classes this semester and again next fall. A goal of this initiative, Dillon said, is “so the students know we are here to talk to them, that we are open to this conversation.” Also, next year, all juniors will be required to take a one-semester civics course, which Bates said will focus on the basics of how government works. Next fall, Poly will also combine in-class lessons with assembly programming to help students understand the election and its aftermath, whether it’s a power transfer to former president Donald Trump or a second term for President Joe Biden.

While civics and politics are distinct, the two subjects often intersect, and as students study civics, they are likely to engage in conversations about controversial political topics, such as abortion rights or gun control. As Poly increases its civics and election-related education, some students may still feel hesitant to express political opinions at school, especially if they think those views will be unpopular among their teachers or peers. Those who fear sharing their views may sense increased tension surrounding politics — according to Learning for Justice, “As our country becomes politically polarized, one effect is that people increasingly distrust —or disdain —those who identify as members of political parties to which they…do not belong.” 

Given the challenges of teaching civics — and navigating inevitable political conversations — in an environment where not all students feel safe discussing their views, Poly students and teachers have identified two potential ways to make students feel more comfortable.

First, Eby said teaching civics and politics-related material is “about finding credible sources and sharing with students while trying to keep things as objective as possible.” Bates agreed and said educators need to show students how to find good sources and help them “come to conclusions that make the most sense for [them] as [individuals].” Bates suggested, for instance, that teachers provide students with websites that allow them to determine which candidates they support based only on policy positions.

Second, teachers must create a safe space for students to ask questions and express their opinions. Brandmeyer said that when students share controversial ideas, “support from teachers really makes a difference because it sets an example for the students about how to treat other people’s opinions.” Dillon said that in order to foster hard conversations, “we have to really trust each other and we have to really be willing to be open with each other and to listen.” In civics and all classes, Bates said, “The more we actually listen to one another and not just wait for our turn to speak, the better off we can be in creating spaces where people do feel comfortable.”

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