We at PenPal Schools have heard from many educators across the United States and around the world who are struggling to find ways to discuss the recent US Presidential election and evolving political landscape with their students. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, the growing divisions within the country are of great concern. There has been an outpouring of emotion and opinions - especially on social media - but many discussions involve only like-minded friends and family, resulting in the reinforcement of similar ideas. When people do connect with others who hold different beliefs, discussions can devolve into name-calling, gloating, and disrespect from both sides. These exchanges don’t help to heal our divisions, and they set a terrible example for our children.
If we as adults cannot serve as role models for our youth, perhaps it’s time for our children to serve as role models for us. Over the past three months, over 7,600 students from 395 classrooms in 36 states have connected through PenPal Schools’ American Perspectives project (formerly called “Decision 2016”) to share perspectives on issues such as immigration, health care, the economy, and climate change. Students have connected from conservative, liberal, urban, and rural communities. We’ve seen students from the “Rust Belt” exchange opinions with PenPals from immigrant families, and connected students from a variety of racial and religious backgrounds.
Amazingly, in almost every single one of the 53,172 messages that students have exchanged, they’ve shared ideas with open minds and mutual respect. How is it possible that our children have succeeded where we as adults have failed? I’ve been thinking about this question since the election, and my best explanation is that students enter into PenPal exchanges with the intention of learning. When your goal is to learn, you’re not just ready to absorb facts, you’re also more likely to consider other perspectives. We adults often enter conversations with the primary intent of expressing our own opinions, which makes it extremely difficult to empathize with others.
Of course, even the most eager students aren’t in the mood to learn all the time, so we provide a few reminders along with each weekly prompt to help them get into the right frame of mind. Here’s a sample question from the Immigration lesson, which students answer after watching a video and reading an article about the topic:
Considering the success of our students, perhaps we should all remind ourselves to take these steps when entering into political discussions. For example, if you want to tell everyone that free trade is great, take some time to read about it first - maybe you’ll find a study to support your claims. But remember to consider other perspectives beyond just the experts - you might learn from someone who lost his job that, while trade may benefit the economy overall, it doesn’t benefit every person equally. When discussing sensitive issues such as immigration that are closely tied to personal identity and family, it’s even more important to be considerate and respectful of other perspectives.
Divisions are hard to overcome when both sides feel disrespected. Recent events - from police violence towards innocent Black men to hateful rhetoric targeting immigrants, women, Muslims, and the disabled - have reminded us that we still have a lot of work to do to overcome prejudice. But we have also been reminded that there are many Americans who feel disrespected in other ways. The election results have shown us that there are millions of people who feel forgotten by our country’s leadership and excluded from our prosperity. While hatred still unfortunately has a hold on some Americans, many of us are motivated by hopes and fears that would appear surprisingly familiar if we made an effort to learn from one another.
It’s time for us to get back to basics and follow the lead of our children. Think before you speak. Read before you think*. Ask questions and listen to the answers. And above all, treat your PenPals with respect.
Founder of PenPal Schools
I want to learn from YOU. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please comment below. Or if you want to share your thoughts with me in a less public setting, email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Constructive dialogue is more important now than ever, so we’ve converted our Decision 2016 project to “American Perspectives” to continue the learning. Sessions begin every two weeks, including one starting November 21st.
*Quote from Fran Lebowitz