Teaching politics in the WL classroom – the forbidden topic

Teaching politics

The current political climate in the US makes it scary to consider teaching politics in the classroom, or even bring political events up. But is it possible to leave politics out of the language classroom, and should this be a goal of the world language teacher? What will our students miss out on when we retreat from bringing up current events out of fear that someone might not like the issue?

Why teaching politics is part of teaching a language

Unless we focus entirely on grammar and basic vocabulary and entirely leave out culture, it’s impossible to teach a world language without politics coming into the conversation at some point. If you wish to use authentic materials such as social media posts, YouTube videos, newspapers and podcasts, you will often run into political issues. A country’s culture does not happen in a vacuum – there are almost always political considerations behind decisions that affect everyday life.

Recently, there have been a lot of news stories about the French protests against the reform of retirement and pensions. These are big stories, on every website that mentions current events. There are memes, tweets, and more. The videos are all over YouTube. Our students see these stories and will wonder why these protests are happening – especially if they turn violent or destructive. How can you discuss this without bringing politics into the classroom? There are two sides to this story, and each side has reasons why they believe what they do.

This is a story that could bring so much discussion into the classroom. One of the ACTFL standards is comparisons – and wouldn’t being able to compare the French retirement age of 62 (increasing to 64) with the American system be a great lesson? It also could lead to a discussion about why the French strike so frequently. It’s a huge cultural difference and part of French culture. Macron’s use of article 49.3 will bring up comparisons to the American process of how a bill is made. Avoiding a conversation about events such as these would be doing our students a disservice.

Teaching politics helps avoid making more “Ugly Americans”

By teaching politics and current events in the world language classroom, students can gain an appreciation for the diversity of opinions present in any given society, as well as develop empathy towards people who may have different views from them. They can understand that just because things are done one way in their home country, that’s not the only way to do them.

I’m sure we’ve all known someone who is the stereotypical “ugly American” – no matter what, any time they encounter a different way of doing something, the response is likely to be “well, in AMERICA, we do it this way…” Usually this is said with a tone of judgement, that the comparison has been made but the target of the comparison has been found lacking.

I tell my students that just because something is different doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Sometimes, differences are just a matter of opinion. Usually, differences have an explanation behind them that is more interesting than just accepting them as opinions. French people may eat certain foods that we’re unfamiliar with because those foods grow well in their climate. Their cars aren’t smaller because they just don’t like big vehicles, but because roads tend to be narrower, and gas prices are higher. Discussing this issue leads to great history lessons and an appreciation for the age of French cities and towns, often built hundreds of years ago before cars and trucks had been invented!

Staying balanced and unbiased when teaching politics

When teaching politics or current events in class, it is critical for teachers to remain balanced and unbiased. While encouraging healthy debates among students is beneficial for learning purposes, it is important to avoid getting caught up in partisan rhetoric or introducing controversial topics that could lead to classroom disruptions or tensions.

Before you begin to teach a political lesson, consider what the purpose is – if you are focusing on reading or listening, it’s fine to just present the information as factual with no debate. Share the information that is available and reliable, focusing on primary sources and media that isn’t particularly biased. But if the purpose is to debate and have your students express their opinions, be careful to choose topics that won’t be taken personally by your students. Make sure that the debate is truly about the culture and countries you are studying, not just some hot-button topic of the day.

For example, you could debate whether or not the French workers are likely to be successful with their method of striking and protesting, or if there are other ways that might be more successful. This would allow you to bring up past protests and what their results were. Students are unlikely to get upset about this while still finding the topic interesting and debatable.

In some cases, even teaching historical events may be seen as “teaching politics.” If you teach German, bringing up the World War 2 era and the Holocaust used to be seen as just historical facts. Sadly, with a percentage of people today questioning the horrific actions of the Nazi government – and some even taking the view that Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy after all – there may be some who object to students hearing about these events. Teaching about French colonialism can cause some parents of a certain political persuasion to feel that they are “being attacked for being white” – even though these parents may not even be French, and therefore have nothing to do with the issue.

With issues such as these, you have to determine what the best plan for your classroom, your school, and your students is. You should also consider what type of back-up your administration will give you if trouble arises, and whether or not this is a hill you are willing to die on. For some, it’s easy – teaching World War 2 history and the Holocaust isn’t negotiable, it was bad, but it also had a profound effect on the German society of today and it’s not something you will debate, nor will you leave it out just to appease any budding neo-Nazis or Holocaust deniers in your class.

Not every teacher will be willing or able to take a stand due to a variety of reasons. In this case, it may be best to just avoid the topic, or keep it very factual and perfunctory. The Holocaust is not a suitable topic for debate, but it is a suitable topic to read about historically. The existence and lasting effects of French colonialism can be discussed without debating the issue. You aren’t “teaching politics” so much as providing a historical context for current events.

Teaching politics vs current events

Current events are more likely to be seen as teaching politics than historical events, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid them. If you are a Russian teacher, I’m sure that the war in Ukraine may come up in your class. Some students and their families may support the war in Russia, others will support Ukraine. Again, in this case it will probably be best to avoid debate and focus on the facts that we know. Sadly, even those are debatable in these days. Sometimes this is due to propaganda and nefarious reasons, but sometimes it’s just due to war being dirty.

Instead of focusing on the events of the war itself, as a Russian teacher you could teach about the effects of the war on people – both Ukrainian AND Russian. There are many videos on YouTube from Ukrainians talking about their lives under the attack/occupation, but there are also videos from Russians who have fled the country to avoid being mobilized. Current events eventually become history, and being able to hear from people living through the event right now will provide not only language input, but a personal connection to those who are affected.

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