ProjectCiv Helps Students Break Out of Echo Chamber, Have Civil Political Discussions

In an initiative from a school librarian, students model civility in political conversations about the hotly debated issues of the day.
Immigration reform. Gun control. Net Neutrality. Free speech. Once a month, students from the political left and right at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, TN, discuss these or other weighty, and often emotionally-fraught, political issues over pizza. This is not a debate, as many would assume bringing Republicans and Democrats together to discuss these issues would be. These are conversations that, in the end, often lead to a compromise of ideas or, at least, better understanding—not victory or defeat. "The goal is not to win, the goal is to learn,” says Hume-Fogg librarian Amanda Smithfield, who created ProjectCivAmerica, the monthly bipartisan discussions. Seeking to do something that would elevate the level of discourse after the 2016 presidential election, Smithfield started both a Democrat and a Republican club in the high school. She enjoyed listening to the discussions of both groups. But with so many people living in echo chambers of their own opinions, she realized that she needed to do more—and get these students out of their bubbles. "People are always stereotyping the other side,” says Smithfield, also a 2016 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. “If you see where they are coming from, maybe you’ll be more empathetic." With that hope, she began ProjectCiv in Fall 2017. With some pizza and an invitation to anyone, not just political club members, she set out rules to respectfully discuss hot-button issues during lunch and let the students take it from there. “I decided to go because I’m interested in politics, and I love having civil discussions over controversial issues,” 16-year-old junior Rachel Harrington wrote in an email. “I also am one of the few conservatives in my high school, so I wanted to bring some different ideas to the table as well as hear other people’s ideas.” Before each discussion, Smithfield gives the students a few articles to read—ones with opinions from the left and right and another that simply provides the facts on the issues. In the beginning, kids brought their own facts to the conversation. But since they didn't have proper time to research or gain understanding of quality sources, Smithfield decided to step in. She has also uses ProjectCiv as a way to educate about information literacy, asking kids what a good source looks like, how they can make sure they have "high quality facts," and how another student can respectfully question or counter a source during a discussion. Freshman Katie Madole, 15, started attending ProjectCiv conversations in October. “I thought it was a really good opportunity to get to join together as youth with people of like-minded and differing beliefs to talk about the issues,” she says. A self-described Independent with a Democratic lean, she was nervous at first, as a freshman among a bunch of smart, opinionated upperclassman. But her apprehension eased quickly. “From the start, Ms. Smithfield made it very clear that you don’t have to agree on everything," says Madole. "But you have to always listen to what the other person was saying, receive what they were saying and, whether you agree or not, make a respectful comment back. The level of respect was always an expectation.” Now, she seeks out others with strong opinions. “I always try to sit with really strong Republican girls,” she says. “They always come in so well-informed and really know what they’re talking about. They’re so intelligent and thought out and respectful. Every time, without fail, I leave learning something new from them just because of unique perspective they shared.” Harrington went in to bring what she expected to be an opposition viewpoint, but she now knows—just as Smithfield hoped—that everything is not so black-and-white. “I have learned that even within the people who tend to agree with me, there is diversity in ideas and thought,” she said in her email. “I also have learned that there are some things that both Democrats and Republicans agree on.”

Not Just at Lunch

Along with newly formed friendships, Smithfield has seen increased civic engagement. As part of the National Week of Conversation April 20-28, Smithfield and the ProjectCiv students partnered with the Nashville Public Library for a Youth Civic Engagement Fair. The students are there to help teach about teen advocacy and have civil conversation with those who might not share their political opinions. Passionate about common sense gun laws? Come have a respectful chat with a gun owner who strongly disagrees with you. The fair is one of many outside-of-school activities these students participated in. Republicans and Democrats alike have been part of a wide voter registration drive, many attending the March for Our Lives no matter their gun control views, in order to sign up fellow young people to vote. Interest in the lunchtime discussions, as well as getting involved in politics or advocacy, has increased since the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Students have gone to the state capitol, met legislators, and written letters to the editor of the local newspaper on important issues.

Amanda Smithfield

“Working with these kids, it really gives me a lot of hope,” Smithfield says. “These are kids who are looking around and saying, ‘I can make a difference.’” Smithfield, and her students, invite members of the community to the school to join the discussions. For the librarian, allowing these adults does more than broaden the conversation. “They are seeing the library in what I consider to be its original role—expanding knowledge in our community,” she says. “I’m always trying to fight stereotype that all we do is check out books. The power of a librarian is as a facilitator of knowledge.” Other teachers and organizations have contacted Smithfield seeking advice on starting their own ProjectCiv-like discussions. She is working on a professional development program for other teachers. And she wants her students to take what they learned out into the world, home or to college or wherever they may be, to show other people that civility and strong political beliefs can go together. “I definitely use ProjectCiv discussions as an example for any kind of conversation about controversial issues,” Harrington writes. “When I tell adults or really anyone, they are shocked that all of us can have such civil conversations and come to a conclusion.” For students like Harrington who have conservative views, these discussions have helped them feel like they will be immediately judged for voicing their beliefs or like outsiders in their own school. “When you feel like you have a voice and even if I totally disagree, you feel like you’re part of a community, might not agree with you but accepts you,” says Smithfield. “When we look at politics today we see so much division,” says Madole. “Sitting down and having a conversation over pizza with someone can’t make anything worse, it can only make it better. You’re learning and receiving and you might even change your perception of the other political party. There’s so many labels regarding each political party. We can actually listen to each other and learn from each other and love each other better. That is probably the main thing that comes out of ProjectCiv—the ability to listen and love and learn."
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Linda Tunks

Thanks to Ms. Smithfield for endeavoring to bring these students together. I believe both they and Hume Fogg will obtain a lot from it and help each student to feel that their opinions matter without being attacked when these opinions are expressed. We have to stop the name calling.

Posted : Apr 26, 2018 10:22




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