How Teachers Can Help Students Make Sense of Today's Political and Social Tensions

Posted by Laura Tavares and Jocelyn Stanton on March 24, 2016


We are living in a time of deep political and social divisions. Here at Facing History, we’ve been noticing that the same dynamics of “us and them” that we explore through history and literature are a powerful force in our own world today. In the United States, we’re confronted with troubling news whenever we turn on the TV, open the paper, or use social media: verbal abuse and physical violence erupt at political rallies. Hateful graffiti defaces the interfaith chapel of a national university. Students trade antisemitic and homophobic taunts at a high school basketball game. Tensions around membership and belonging are also felt around the world.

FH139594_for_Web_or_Office_Use.jpgHow should educators respond to these and other events? What does it mean to nurture a reflective and democratic classroom amid these currents of mistrust, anger, and fear? Every classroom is different, but all students can benefit from the opportunity to engage, process, and ask questions in an atmosphere of sensitivity and respect.

Many teachers use “essential questions” to give shape and meaning to their curriculum. What are the “essential questions” we might ask about the moment we find ourselves in today? These questions might begin with observation and develop into deeper reflection:

  1. What are students noticing about the climate in their country, town, and school?
  2. What factors might be contributing to the divisive mood in the United States and across the globe today?
  3. Why are notions of “us and them” such a consistent feature of human societies?
  4. When and why does an “us and them” view of the world become especially appealing or attractive? When does this worldview develop into verbal and physical violence?
  5. Is there a relationship between how a society negotiates differences and the strength of its democracy?
  6. How can individuals respond to expressions of hatred, anger, and fear? What happens if we choose to remain silent?

Our experience suggests that case studies in history and literature can help students explore these questions in a deep and purposeful way. But the conversation can also begin in response to brief readings, poetry, and films that invite students to connect and to reflect. In the coming weeks, we’ll be writing additional blog posts to help teachers and students examine issues of human behavior, democracy, and decision-making. Today, we offer five resources to spark a conversation about today’s tensions and divisions through the lens of the theme “us and them”:

Read:            What Do We Do With a Variation?” in our Race and Membership Resource

This poem by James Berry raises essential questions about how we respond to difference.

Watch:          When Does an ‘Us’ Turn Against a ‘Them’?

In this three-minute video, philosopher Anthony Appiah discusses the human social psychology that gives rise to ideas of “we and they.”

Read:            “The Walking Boy”

In this essay, Alan Jacobs describes how his childhood friends harassed a black boy who passed through their neighborhood and reflects on how his own need to belong shaped his choice to join in.

Read:            “Talking About Religion”

Interfaith leader Eboo Patel tells a painful story from his high school years that shaped his commitment to pluralism across lines of difference.

Watch:          “One of Us or One of Them?”

In this Facing History and Ourselves PSA, actor Josh Gad encourages students to ask “Who am I?”

And, to help round out all these resources, make sure to explore, Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations. This guide shares strategies, ideas, and activities to help your students discuss difficult topics in a productive, open, and respectful way. 

Get the Guide!

Topics: Classrooms, Facing History Resources, Learning

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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