|Pope John Paul II High School seniors Jack Palen and Niya Patel recently founded the Young Politicos club at the school to have a place to discuss current events and debate political issues. The group gathered on Friday, Jan. 20 in the school gym to watch the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Photo by Theresa Laurence|
As President Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday, Jan. 20, members of the newly-founded Young Politicos student club at Pope John Paul II High School gathered in the darkened gym to watch. Some cheered while Trump gave his speech, others remained quietly skeptical. But no one shouted or rolled their eyes at each other. No matter their political beliefs, these students were here to watch a historic event together, respectfully sharing a common space.
It’s a simple idea, but a novel one these days as people on opposite sides of the political spectrum are so polarized. In the Diocese of Nashville’s high schools, students and teachers are finding ways to get beyond the acerbic battles taking place in person and on social media, and to have respectful, face-to-face dialogue in class and in after-school clubs.
JPII’s Young Politicos, who meet every Friday at lunch, offers an opportunity for students “where we can come together and have actual discussions,” said club co-founder, JPII senior Jack Palen.
He envisions the club as a way to talk about the workings of the government and respectfully debate current events and issues. During the presidential campaign, he said, “the issues, the stuff that really matters, that’s what was lost” as voters were distracted by the candidates’ personalities and personal baggage.
Since the Young Politicos club is so new, established just this month, group leaders are still not entirely sure how meetings will go, but they envision “discussion, rooted in facts,” said co-founder Niya Patel. When the club discusses immigration, Patel hopes to share her own story of emigrating to the U.S. from India when she was 8 years old. “I’m happy to have a platform where I can share my personal story and give my perspective to people who don’t have that perspective,” she said.
Like a number of the Young Politicos, Palen and Patel are students in Ellie Walsh’s AP Government class. She’s quick to note that the club is “so student-led,” and is proud of her students for starting the club. “One of my class goals is for students to become active citizens,” she said. “This is tangible evidence that they are inspired to be active citizens.”
To some extent, Walsh said, “students are disenchanted with how adults were speaking around them,” when it came to politics, so they decided to create their own club where respectful dialogue is paramount. “They crave space to work out their opinions,” she said.
At Father Ryan High School, students have opportunities to tackle tough questions through dialogue in class and, more deeply, as part of the Ethics Bowl team.
“That’s something that’s kind of lacking in our divisive world today, where people just go back and forth, talking past each other,” said Ryan theology and philosophy teacher Brent Fernandez, who is busy preparing students for the Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl, taking place in Knoxville Feb. 4. “The goal of this is to find the truth, which should be the goal of every human, right? And all discourses, especially if we’re talking about ethics or philosophy or theology, we’re seeking the truth; we’re not just trying to be right.”
In the Ethics Bowl, students will take on a wide range of topics, like banning religious garb, lethal force by police, contraception, and on-line privacy – contemporary issues that people face on a daily basis and that permeate the news.
“It gives us an opportunity to really examine the cases and sort of come to a convergence on the truth,” said Ryan Ethics Bowl team member, Evan Nunez. “It provides us with the ability to hear different viewpoints and the ability for other people to influence us with their opinions. As a result, it’ll allow us to reach some sort of ethical conclusion at the end.”
Ryan student Claire Gallagher was surprised to learn how her opinions could be influenced and even changed by being open to diverse viewpoints. “When I started out I had one opinion about what I thought the answers should be. It really helped to get in a group of other people and with Mr. Fernandez, to talk about all the different aspects of the case. There were a lot of things that I hadn’t considered before, and people had different perspectives on the cases, which really helped me come to a different conclusion by the end.”
Starting conversations from a place of mutual respect is important, said Sara Strobel, chair of the history department at St. Cecilia Academy. With high expectations and a well-established code of decorum in place in Catholic schools, “you have a culture of understanding and respect,” and conversations can flourish from there, she said. “Students who are more educated about the facts are more apt to listen to each other’s sides,” she said, and discussion is more productive “when your argument is based on facts versus emotion.”
Teaching U.S. history during this particular moment in American history can be exciting and challenging, Strobel said. This can be especially true when history lessons intersect with controversial current events. During a recent class, Strobel’s students were planning a modern-day Oregon Trail journey where they had to pass through Native American territory. This brought up today’s fight over the Dakota Access pipeline. “I try to give them the information and then ask ‘How do you think this should be solved?’” she said.
Whether teachers are presenting in class or helping students with research papers, they are cautious about their sources. In her AP Government class, Walsh’s students take turns making current events presentations every Monday. “Students really want to know what’s a reliable news source,” she said. Walsh encourages students to read a wide variety of news sources, be aware of biases, and be able to identify and disregard fake news.
A goal of all JPII teachers, including Walsh, is for their students to become good public speakers, to be able to make confident presentations supported by accurate information. Teaching students to be savvy consumers of news and responsible social media users is part of helping them make informed opinions. Students, like adults, can get caught in an “echo chamber,” Walsh said, if they only watch or read news and commentary from limited sources, especially those with a political bias.
“We all have opinions on things,” Fernandez added. “What we get to do here is also understand the why, with informed opinions, not just, ‘I believe this because it’s what I believe.’ We have to ask each other some difficult questions, just like how it’s going to happen in life.
“There are always going to be differing opinions, and it’s good to have these conversations – where it’s actually a conversation,” continued Fernandez. “Being able to dialogue, even if we don’t always come to the same conclusions on things, has been excellent, and it helps to understand where people are coming from. I think that’s something that everybody in the world could benefit from.”