May 16, 2019

We should teach high school kids civic discourse by showing them how to argue better

A Michigan Government teacher turned his classroom into 'a laboratory for democracy' by following these five rules.

During an election year, high school students, just like the rest of the country, want to engage in the political debate. The Better Arguments Project is helping teachers host healthy discussions. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Now that the 2020 election cycle has begun, you would assume that as a Government teacher I would be overjoyed. I am not. Teaching Government is challenging to begin with, but teaching Government during an election year adds the same type of vitriol in the classroom that the rest of American society experiences.

During the 2016 election, I witnessed my students dividing into partisan camps or disengaging from the political process altogether. While I have been encouraged by the increased interest and participation in politics and government over the past two years, I am disappointed that we as a country remain as divided as ever and don’t seem to be interested in political reconciliation.

America’s schools are the proving grounds for democracy and play an important role in improving our civic discourse.

In November 2018, I attended the National Council for the Social Studies conference in Chicago and attended a session on The Better Arguments Project, which is a partnership between Facing History, the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, and The Allstate Corporation. At this session, I was introduced to the five tenets of a better arguments:

    1. Take Winning Off the Table.
    2. Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately.
    3. Pay Attention to Context.
    4. Embrace Vulnerability.
    5. Be Open.

I was fascinated and immediately began thinking of ways to incorporate these tenets into my classroom. I view my classroom as a laboratory for democracy, so I frequently test out new lesson ideas in the hopes that they can be scaled up throughout my school, my district, my state. The Better Arguments Project is scalable and should be incorporated into as many classrooms as possible as soon as possible.

America’s schools are the proving grounds for democracy and play an important role in improving our civic discourse.

This past February, I introduced a three-part project in my AP U.S. Government and Politics classes about the problems in the legislative branch. The culmination of the project was a class discussion that had potential to generate heated, controversial opinions. I introduced my students to the five tenets the day before our discussion and posted them on the whiteboard during class.

When the discussion started to veer into vitriol or elevated voices, or when students were not actively listening to their classmates, it was easy to remind them of the rules and reframe the discussion.

During one of the class discussions, a committee of teachers, principals, curriculum directors, and superintendents from around the county witnessed the exceptional discussion that my students held. I made sure to provide each of the observers with a copy of my lesson plan, including the tenets, and the feedback that I received from the observers was amazement at the depth of knowledge and the tone of civility that my students displayed. A few of the teachers contacted me after the lesson and expressed interest at learning more about The Better Arguments Project.

Throughout the rest of the semester when discussing current events or when student comments reflected the partisan pettiness that we witness all too often, I would remind my students of the five tenets of better arguments and the tone would quickly improve.

As this school year winds to a close and I begin making plans for next year, I am committed to introducing these lessons early and often in my classroom. I am hopeful that my students will be mindful of the importance of civility in the classroom and that it will stay with them as they become voters and effective citizens.

Learn more about The Better Arguments Project, a partnership between Facing History and Ourselves, the Aspen Institute’s Program on Citizenship and American Identity, and The Allstate Corporation.

Ryan Werenka

Troy High School

Ryan Werenka is the Social Studies Department Head at Troy High School in Troy, Michigan.