Connecting students across the partisan divide

By Kent Lenci. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

About two years ago, I found myself wandering the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. The city was eerily deserted on a Sunday evening, and I filled the space with scenes from civil rights films– Klansmen parading down the sidewalk in defiance of sit- ins, and police dogs snarling at protesters. As darkness set in, I almost expected Bull Connor himself to dart out of the shadows, seize his bullhorn, and order me back onto the plane that had just brought me from Boston.

I am a teacher, and I was in Birmingham to meet a colleague who had agreed to connect his students with my own in Massachusetts to discuss civil rights, race, the Civil War… and each other. Our collaboration was meant to help students acknowledge stereotypes of the “other,” across the Mason Dixon line, but I’ll admit to having harbored my own preconceptions about life in Dixie. Three days after my arrival, though, I left Birmingham feeling that the city had not just weathered the Civil Rights Movement, but that it could teach Boston a thing or two about racial awareness.

My visit left me reenergized to expose my students to kids with different points of view. Since then, middle-schoolers at Brookwood School in Manchester, MA have maintained a vibrant dialog with their counterparts at Highlands School, outside of Birmingham, and we have not shied away from difficult conversations. Many of my students openly think of southerners as racists and rednecks, and the southern students with whom we’ve been in touch characterize us northerners as bossy and rude. Kids have acknowledged these stereotypes, and, through sustained dialog, whittled away at them. Armed with a more robust common understanding, our students have worked on a mock Supreme Court hearing to decide whether a Tennessee school violated a student’s First Amendment rights when it blocked him from bringing a Confederate flag to school. The project is rich and layered, and it is immeasurably deepened by the participation of students from across the Mason Dixon line.

It turns out that I am not the only one trying to partner students across ideological divide to prepare them for tough work. I was thrilled to recently discover a program called Mismatch that looks to connect people, including students, across the political spectrum. This summer I will join an advisory group of educators to help Mismatch tailor their product to classroom teachers, and I’m intrigued by what I’ve discovered so far. Mismatch is the product of two organizations that I can’t believe I didn’t already know about. One of those, Living Room Conversations, helps people of dissimilar political viewpoints practice civil discourse, while the other, AllSides, helps the citizenry navigate bias by presenting news from the left, right and center. Joined together, they strive to do the very work I also have been attempting– but on a larger scale.
When I was in Alabama, I stumbled into history in the making as I wandered past the outdoor wedding ceremony of a gay couple on the first day of same-sex marriage in that state. While I was taking my stroll, Alabama’s Chief Justice, Roy Moore, was gathering national attention for his order that local probate judges should ignore the recent federal court decision affirming gay marriage. In some areas — like the park through which I had unwittingly wandered — gay marriage was proceeding, while in other jurisdictions it was not. A cartoon in the local Birmingham paper mockingly depicted Moore clutching divine streaks of lightning while blocking the doorway to the 21st Century. When I returned home to Massachusetts, though, the nuances of the story vanished on Boston’s airwaves, leaving just stark headlines (“Alabama Blocks Gay Marriage”) to reinforce our long-held assumptions of the South. Had I not just been there, I would have had no sense of the layered controversy that Moore’s decision had ignited in Alabama; I needed to bust out of my familiar settings to see that event in a more informed way.
We adults have become notoriously entrenched in our own echo chambers, and I work hard to counter that tendency among my students. I am excited that, with the ideological and organizational backing of Living Room Conversations and AllSidesMismatch may help me do so. The political divide that has grown so obvious to us all in recent times must, in part, be traced to our collective lack of experience confronting “the other,” and I hold great hope that Mismatch is one tool that can be deployed in the classroom to cultivate a network of schools that will help our students become more open-minded.
Kent Lenci teaches middle school history and serves as the Personal Growth and Development Coordinator at Brookwood School in Manchester, MA.