August 21 2017

Engaging Issues from a Trump Presidency in the Classroom: Three Pedagogical Strategies

Fred Glennon, Le Moyne College

A protest sign reads "Bring Back Facts! Make America THINK again!"

Photo: Women’s March in Seneca Falls, NY, on Jan 21, 2017, by Lindy Glennon.

Introduction

Two days after the election, students from my college decided to hold a march on campus to protest the election results and its implications for America’s future. The students in the march were mixed: white and black, Christian and Muslim, straight and gay. As the march was about to begin, some pickup trucks raced in front of the group carrying large flags: an American flag, a Trump flag, and a Confederate flag. The students of color near me burst into tears, realizing that this show of defiance on the part of a couple of students didn’t understand their concerns over Trump’s racist and misogynist statements; even worse, they either had no clue as to what the Confederate flag symbolized or were advocating white supremacy. Given that we were in Central New York and not the south, it was hard to see how it meant “southern heritage.”

When I arrived in class the next day, we discussed the election, the events on campus, and what students were thinking and feeling. Like students on many college campuses, most were devastated by the election and aghast that some of their classmates could be so insensitive. But there were several Trump supporters in the class who were willing to voice their reasons for voting for Trump. They were quick to distance themselves from the bigotry displayed by the drivers of the trucks and the racist and misogynistic rhetoric used by Trump; but they wanted their classmates to know that they came from working class families who were struggling to make ends meet let alone put them through college. They felt a Trump administration would better address their economic needs and the issues they faced.

The response on the part of the other students in the class was respectful, demonstrating interest in the perspectives of their peers even though they didn’t agree. The conversation went back and forth for about thirty minutes until everyone felt they had been heard. Why didn’t they attack each other as some have done in other college settings? I contend this was because the students had crafted their own class covenant, one of the pedagogical strategies I will describe in this essay. Their discussions operated in accordance with that covenant the entire semester and kept doing so when they considered the Trump election.

Since the election, I have had numerous conversations with students in my current classes to look at the religious, social, political, and economic challenges raised by the Trump election. It doesn’t hurt that the two classes I am teaching are on Church and State (Religion and Politics), and Ethics from the Perspective of the Oppressed. The content of each class lends itself to discuss important elements of a Trump administration. In this paper, I want to talk about three classroom strategies that have enabled me to engage students in meaningful and civil dialogue about the aftermath (in terms of cabinet appointees and policies) of the Trump election as President.

First Pedagogical Strategy: Class Covenant

As is the case for many who teach religious studies and/or religious ethics, most of my classes are discussion oriented, where we tackle difficult issues such as reproductive health, economic justice, and the environment. To ensure engaged but collegial dialogue, I encourage students to develop what I call a class covenant. While others may describe similar strategies as ground rules for discussion, I use the language of covenant because of its strong emphasis on mutual responsibility and accountability.

During the first week of all my classes, I divide students into small, heterogenous discussion groups (my class sizes range from twenty-five to thirty-five students). I do this in a variety of ways but the goal is the same: form groups of students who are not necessarily friends to get them talking to people they may not know or who may be different from them.

Second, we form a class covenant. In their groups students are given certain prompts to develop this covenant. Those prompts include such questions as: How should we treat one another in our groups? In class as a whole? Should we respect each other’s opinions? How should we handle disagreements? What ground rules for our discussions should we follow?

After about fifteen minutes, I ask the groups to report out to the larger class what they believe those ground rules should be. As you might imagine, many of them revolve around the various ways we should demonstrate respect to others. I record the ideas every group offers and then we narrow them down to a list of rules with which everyone feels comfortable. Here is the class covenant agreed upon by one class this semester:

  • We should treat one another fairly (Golden Rule), which means we should respect others and their right to have opinions and beliefs different from our own.
     
  • We should keep an open mind and welcome disagreement, trying to come to agreement when possible.
     
  • When conflict and disagreement do arise, they should be “argued out” respectfully, which means really listening to each other to understand fully what the other’s point of view is rather than talking over one another.
     
  • If there is no resolution, then agree to disagree.
     
  • We should handle conflict peacefully and not make it personal.
     
  • What is said in class should stay in class (confidentiality).

Most classes tend to develop a similar list of rules or covenant. The challenge, of course, is to be sure that everyone agrees to and abides by these rules. I do this in a number of ways. First, I ritualize the rules; after all, I teach religion. Once the rules are agreed upon, I have students stand and make a pledge to one another to abide by the covenant they had made. Second, I publicize the rules. Each student gets a copy of the covenant. The covenant also goes on to the welcome page of the learning management system we use (Canvas). When I sense that a class discussion might be contentious given the personalities in the room, I put the class covenant up on the overhead so that students are mindful of their responsibilities toward one another. Third, I emphasize accountability. I remind the students that the responsibility for enforcing the covenant rests with them, not me. If they see a classmate violate the covenant, it is their responsibility for drawing the student’s attention to the violation. This is not easy for them at first, but with practice through the semester, they become more comfortable during those few times when it is necessary, which it was not the day after the election.

Second Pedagogical Strategy: Case Studies

In many of my Religious Ethics classes, I have found case studies to be a helpful pedagogical tool to involve students in meaningful dialogue about significant issues. In my class on the relationship between Church and State (Religion and Politics), we always explore some of the boundary and authority issues implicated in trying to keep religion and government separate. Some of the questions we discuss include: How extensive should the boundaries between religion and government be? Should there be a “wall of separation”? What does it mean to make sure that government does not establish a religion? Is this even possible (or desirable)? How do we protect the free exercise of religion for every citizen or non-citizen?

One locus of our exploration is the public funding of religion. This semester we have focused on the Supreme Court case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, where the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision ruled that providing school tuition vouchers to be used at private, mostly religiously affiliated schools by individual families did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Considering the Betsy DeVos confirmation as Education Secretary, whose entire career has been to promote school vouchers to improve elementary and secondary education, this case was timely. Aside from excerpts from the case, students read the backdrop for the case, the results of the Cleveland school voucher program (where over 90% of the vouchers were used at church-related private schools), and some studies regarding the effectiveness of vouchers in improving educational outcomes.

Students then do a social goods exercise where they are asked to distribute the social good of a good education. They are asked the following questions: On what basis would you distribute this good (what criteria would you use and why)? How should it be distributed? Who should distribute it? What would you say to people who disagreed with your decision?

The discussion sparks a lively debate about this good, especially on the question of who should distribute it. They raised important questions about public education versus vouchers and can analyze the key questions related the Trump Administration’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as the Education Secretary, who is on record as saying that her efforts on behalf of school choice is in part a desire “to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom” (Wermund). While most students felt it was appropriate for religiously affiliated schools to offer education, they disagreed with the argument that taxpayer money should be used for this purpose (even though several of them had gone to Catholic high schools). Vouchers used at religiously affiliated schools, they argued, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I encouraged them to voice their concerns to their elected officials.

Of course, Betsy DeVos might see this as an example of indoctrination. In her speech at Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), she made this suggestion to the college students who were present: "The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree." Contrary to her opinion, I do not tell my students what to think. I respect all the First Amendment rights of my students, including their right to exercise their religious freedom, something I doubt her dominion theology has in mind (Glennon).

Third Pedagogical Strategy: Experiential Learning

John Dewey contends, “An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance” (1966, 144). Over the years, I have found Dewey’s contention especially true with helping students to understand the multi-faceted dynamics associated with social injustice and inadequate public policies which are central to my class on Ethics from the Perspective of the Oppressed. I teach in an institutional context where most students come from somewhat privileged, mostly suburban and rural backgrounds. They have internalized, often unconsciously, a variety of stereotypes about minorities, the poor and the homeless, such as lazy, irresponsible, and the like. Most of them lack any clear understanding of the institutional, policy, and structural injustices and barriers the poor and the homeless face (such as poor educational systems, low wages, and lack of affordable housing). Therefore, in this class, I use a variety of experiential learning strategies, from simulations to a social justice action project, to break down these stereotypes, some of which have been perpetuated by members of the Trump Administration. One such simulation I use is a strategy I call “Eviction Notice.” The purpose of this teaching tactic is to lead students to understand through simulation at least one aspect of the obstacles the poor and homeless face: carrying on one’s responsibilities without a place to call one’s own.

In preparation for class, students are broken into groups to read different chapters of a book that highlights the behavioral and structural problems associated with poverty and homelessness. I have used such texts as Shipler’s The Working Poor and Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. When they arrive at their classroom, the door is locked and an eviction notice is posted advising them that until further notice they are unable to meet in any classroom (by order of the Registrar). At times, I will even use brightly colored tape barring access to the door. I feign ignorance regarding the problem and lead the students to a nearby hallway where I have them engage in a cooperative learning strategy called “jigsaw,” in which different groups teach one another the material from their respective chapters. (Just because you can’t meet in the classroom doesn’t mean you don’t fulfill your teaching-learning obligations). Meanwhile, I go in search of a resolution to the classroom problem. After working for 15 minutes in the hallway, an “angry” official from an office comes and asks us to vacate the premises because we are disruptive and do not belong here. We go to a different hallway and are again asked to leave by another official. Eventually, we make our way outside (which in February in Syracuse can be a chilling experience).

The combination of the reading, the cooperative learning, and the eviction notice has been an effective strategy in enabling students to become conscious of the many obstacles faced by the poor and the homeless and of their own stereotypes. In processing the experience with them, they note how uncomfortable they felt outside of their normal classroom surroundings and in the face of the glares and stares they received by passersby. They also comment on how difficult it was to stay focused on the task before them. In their reflection papers, they can connect the entire strategy with a new awareness that the problems associated with poverty and homelessness are not just behavioral but also structural. The difficulties the working poor face transcend racial and familial boundaries. Black, white, poor, two-parent, and single parent families are all struggling in relationship to the multiple impediments they face when trying to move out of poverty and into the mainstream middle-class. After engaging in this simulation, many students can understand the dynamics that have frustrated the working poor, many of whom are Trump supporters. At the same time, the strategy leads to discussion about how budget proposals to cut back on key government programs, such as Medicaid and Food Stamps (SNAP), in favor of increased defense spending and tax cuts for the upper classes, perpetuate the problems that many working-class families, even those who supported Trump, experience.

Conclusion

These pedagogical strategies, a class covenant, case studies, and simulations, may not be applicable to all institutional settings, although I think there is room in all classrooms, large and small, for some modified use of them. Nor do I think these are the only effective tools to enhance student learning about issues related to the causes and consequences of the election of President Donald Trump, as the other essays in this edition of Spotlight on Teaching make clear. In my classes, however, these three pedagogical techniques have been helpful for me and my students both for and against the Trump Administration and its policies as we grapple with the implications of his presidency. The class covenant provides a safe space for students to participate in civil discourse in our common search for truth, respecting the differences that exist among us. The case study method provides a way for students to think through all the dynamics and implications of the Trump Administration’s public policies, from immigration to school choice to climate change. Experiential learning techniques provide the opportunity for students to place themselves in the shoes of those most affected by these policies and to envision what the best arrangements would entail. This has been my experience thus far. I am sure that the next four years will provide ample opportunity to implement these and other teaching strategies to engage students in thoughtful reflection on what is best for the common good of all persons and to encourage them to use what they learn to advocate for the kinds of policies they think will bring it about.

 

Resources

Dewey, John. 1966. Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2001. Nickel and Dimed: On Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Glennon, Fred. 2004. “Experiential Learning and Social Justice Action.” Teaching Theology and Religion 7 (1): 30–37.

———. 2017. “Trump Administration and the First Amendment.” Ethical and Religious Musings, March 12. Last accessed May 22, 2017. http://ethicsmuse.blogspot.com/2017/03/trump-administration-and-first-amendment.html.

Shipler, David. 2005. The Working Poor. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Wermund, Benjamin. 2016. “Trump’s Education Pick Says Reform ‘Can Advance God’s Kingdom.’” Politico. December 12. Last accessed May 22, 2017. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/betsy-devos-education-trump-religion-232150.


Fred GlennonFred Glennon is professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Le Moyne College. He teaches a variety of courses in religious ethics, including Comparative Religious Ethics and Social Concerns (in classroom and online formats).  His research and teaching focuses on religious ethics and social justice. He also writes and publishes in the area of the scholarship of teaching and learning, with a number of publications in Teaching Theology and Religion. He is coauthor of Introduction to the Study of Religion (Orbis Books, 2012), now in its second edition.