Inspiring Active Citizenship at Wheeler

September 29, 2020

By Allison Gaines Pell,
Head Of School

Over the summer, I spent time learning more about some of the most challenging inflection points in our nation’s history – the depression, the World Wars, polio, the fight for civil rights – and the leaders during those times – their courageous actions, and the manner in which they described the America they believed in. There are commonalities: a belief in the promise that America makes to its people, the possibilities created by self-government, the power of individuals, of knowledge, of science, of understanding, of compassion. From former Presidents FDR to Reagan to Obama, regardless of their imperfections or where they fell short, each shared a fundamental vision of America in which its promise was to be a place where disagreements and dialogue could produce progress, a place of inclusion and tolerance, of morality, of decency, and where every individual could have a role in shaping a common future through voting and self-government that would make the country better than the sum of its parts.

We are in the midst of an election season that has been and will continue to be marked by lack of civility, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes – and I hope we will not see again. While we can continue to hope that better angels will prevail outside of our school community, our work is to provide the best possible experience for our children to embody active citizenship by engaging in dialogue that is respectful, productive,  and informative.  I want to share with you the essence of the guidelines that we have shared with our student community, created by our Strategic Initiatives Council, a group of faculty, and school leadership. I share them below.

There will be missteps, to be sure. We are after all a reflection of the world around us, but I think we can aim higher than what the world expects of us and that’s what we plan to do. Thank you for supporting us in this effort at home, keeping in mind that if we do our work well, we will cultivate young people who have their own beliefs derived from their own learning, research, values, and interactions with others.

Guidelines for all

Intellectual and Personal: Engaging in a conversation of political issues and about local and national elections is both an intellectual act and one that can have a deeply personal, sometimes existential, impact on members of the community.

Curiosity over Judgment: These conversations are best when curiosity is the basis and assumptions and judgment are suspended.

Productive Disagreement: Disagreement is inevitable and can be productive as long as ideas – supported by facts from reliable sources – are attacked and not the people who express them. The expression of multiple political viewpoints is encouraged.

Self-Awareness: All conversations require a sense of one’s own socially significant identities and how they can impact your point of view.

Explain your Position: In these conversations, participants need to explain their positions, rather than just stating their positions. This standard requires time for listening and reflection and space for developing one’s own beliefs and identifying and learning from mistakes.

Commitments for all students and adults:

Though we respect the right to free expression, political advertisements and slogans can interfere with a safe and comfortable learning environment. Some slogans have caused significant negative impacts upon members of our community. While on campus and in our online classrooms including our online avatars (e.g. zoom), we will not advertise political candidates or display their slogans. This is consistent with our dress code policy concerning distracting advertisements.

In addition, we will accept that at times, repeating the language of a politician can impact others negatively or create fear and we will bring this awareness to discussions with friends and classmates.

 

Helpful Resources:

Join The Debate Classroom Guidelines
Election Libguide at the Wheeler Prescott Library
NORMS for Potentially Polarized Conversations

I Voted sticker design by Wheeler senior. Sticker shows the RI Statehouse dome in blue with the Independent Man statue in gold.

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