The third and last U.S. presidential debate takes place Wednesday.
The earlier debates were marked by political nastiness that many historians say is at its worst level in years.
Some teachers, however, are working to make debates less angry. They are teaching their students about civil discourse.
VOA recently visited an 8th grade civics class at Bluestone Middle School in Skipwith, a small town in southern Virginia near the border with North Carolina.
In the class, students are learning to disagree without being disagreeable.
“So, this might be a little bit of a heavy discussion this morning.”
Stephanie Leichty’s class is going to debate a divisive issue, the result of mass shootings at schools:
“Whether or not you honestly think that teachers should be armed.”
The issue divides politicians, friends, families and neighbors. Rather than talk about it calmly and with an open mind, Americans often decide issues based on their political beliefs. They might agree with the opinions of a political leader before examining the issue thoroughly.
Education experts say solving the problem could start in school civics classes.
Paula McAvoy is the program director of the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 2015, she and Diana Hess published a book called “The Political Classroom.”
Their goal was to help teachers give students tools to debate the difficult issues they will face as adults.
She spoke to VOA on Skype.
“With the help of the teacher they can learn that disagreement is normal -- that we can still be friends even if we disagree with each other politically.”
McAvoy believes American society is polarized even beyond politics. She says many Americans have gathered into communities where almost everyone holds the same opinion about issues.
She says this means we are less likely “to even encounter people who disagree with us. And then when we do, often our instinct at the dinner party with your friends is to just avoid (talking about) politics if we know we’re going to disagree with each other.”
She says that is bad for democracy. But she believes solving the problem could start in civics class.
Many teachers worry that if they discuss politics in class, students will soon begin to shout at each other. But McAvoy says teachers can and should control the classroom with a respectful but firm tone.
Leichty agrees with McAvoy. She believes “this is the most important class (the students) have. We talk about the real world here.”
She chooses a difficult subject and gives her students news reports and other information about it from both sides. She then splits the class into groups.
“One, two for. One, two, three against.”
Then, they debate.
“Use this research to back it up. Be knowledgeable. Have a ‘why.’”
“They can’t call the police department that fast -- like, ‘Boop, I’ll be there.’ That's not gonna happen.”
“But can they deal with it if they do kill somebody? Can they deal with it mentally?”
Each side is given the same amount of time to make its points. Before the students on the other side can answer, they must first tell what they heard.
Leichty says disagreement is acceptable.
“Are you gonna scream at them?”
“No. Are you going to say mean and hurtful things, like ‘That was stupid.’ Or ‘That was dumb -- I never said that.’ No. How should you respond? What’s a really nice way to respond to somebody?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“That is not exactly what I said.”
The students really seem to enjoy the debate.
McAvoy says her research shows that “when students discuss, and they’re reading and comparing a lot of material and hearing from each other, they actually end up learning more” than they do from traditional teaching methods.
But she does not believe better civics classes alone will save American politics. She says she is “not idealistic enough to think that if people can just discuss with each other, then the entire political system is going to change. The adults in the system need to work on their behavior.”
She believes the classes will help students become better citizens. She says they learn that they “should pay attention, and that it’s fun to talk about this with other people and hear what they have to say.”
After the debate, Leichty lets the students talk about their true feelings, not just the ones they were assigned to defend. Sometimes, the students argue.
Leichty says that is important because there are two sides to every issue.
Leichty says she hopes the students learn to listen and to be respectful. She says “they need to remember that the person across from them is another human being, with maybe some different thoughts and opinions, and just respecting that person is the most important thing they can do in that moment.”
She says she sees “a lot of kids…realize...that they have to learn to listen to other people.”
She says they are the politicians and voters of the future. She dreams of seeing her students run for office. “I want to be voting for my kids one day,” she says.
I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.
VOA Correspondent Steve Baragona reported this story from Skipwith, Virginia. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
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Words in This Story
nastiness – n. unpleasant and unkind
civil discourse – n. the act of politely using words to exchange thoughts and ideas
civics – n. the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works
open mind – n. willing to consider different ideas or opinions
polarized – adj. separated into opposing groups
instinct – n. a way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is not learned; a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way
tone – n. a quality, feeling or attitude expressed by the words that someone uses in speaking or writing
idealistic – adj. the attitude of a person who believes that it is possible to live according to very high standards of behavior and honesty
formulate – v. to create, invent or produce (something) by careful thought and effort