Talking politics with students

Public libraries are well-known for their role in promoting and facilitating civic engagement. But school libraries? Talking about civic engagement can lead to talking about politics, and talking about politics with students can be tricky, even taboo in some schools. I’ve been thinking about the role of the school library in encouraging students to lead active, healthy, informed civic lives. As school librarians, what value can we add to our students’ civic and political identity development? What happens if we take on this work?

In the fall of 2018, I asked a group of seniors to consider root causes for low youth turnout in the 2014 midterm elections. They resoundingly gave answers like “we don’t know about elections,” “our parents don’t talk to us about this,” and “we wish the school would teach us about politics.” While our students all take US History and US Government, those courses aren’t necessarily designed to teach the kind of political identity development and participation that informed elections require. These kids weren’t getting what they needed.

Subsequently, a few politically conscientious students asked me to help them make sense of the 2018 midterm election. They were going to vote for the first time, but they didn’t know where to begin. I planned three informational sessions in the library called Students Vote! We covered voter registration and rights, state ballot measures, the importance of the youth vote. To my surprise, it was a hit! The students asked me if we could keep going with this type of programming, and what could I say? Yes, of course! Let’s keep going!

We formed a leadership committee. They called the effort Teaching Youth Political Engagement, or TYPE. The committee was made of two students who identified as liberal, one conservative, and one moderate. It’s worth mentioning that this part was (and is) a challenge. Our school has a moderate-to-left leaning student population and many of our more conservative students have expressed discomfort at being politically vocal. One of the goals of TYPE is to be inclusive, though we still don’t have much representation from the right side of the political spectrum. That, however, is another blog post altogether.

In 2019, we held more voter pre/registration efforts, had a few informal discussions on political current events, and chugged along happily doing what we could when we could. There was some student interest, but as it is with many new efforts, I wasn’t sure this one would ever take. Our students are over-scheduled to the extreme, and TYPE is very much an extra that is easily dropped from to-do lists when life gets busy. Then, the pandemic hit, everyone went home, and my TYPE leaders graduated. I was pretty sure TYPE was done for. No one has the time or energy for something extra anymore, right? Still, in a moment of righteous optimism, I put out a call for new leadership in June of this year, and suddenly we were up and running again. Much to my surprise, delight, and mild nervous anxiety, six younger students raised their hands to lead TYPE into the 2020 election season.

What qualifies me to do this work? Good question. Back to school librarianship. In many ways, I feel the essence of my professional existence is to help people parse information. Politics is no different than any other topic when it comes to this. I don’t express my opinion, and I’m lucky not to have had anything too contentious come up. The format of our sessions is “here are the facts” followed by “what do you think about those facts?” and “how do these facts impact your life and what you care about or do?” Librarianship puts me on very firm ground when it comes to facts, and that helps because the students already know that about me. They know I care about sources and citing them. They know I don’t mess around with information.

Our discussions intersect with so many other areas of school librarianship. I really didn’t plan for that, but it turns out to be true every time. Each political discussion we have includes a nod to media literacy, news literacy, and information literacy topics. We talk about verifying information that circulates on social media in the context of images from protests, rallies, and riots. We talk about vetting news sources, reading news from multiple sources, and the consequences of irresponsible news consumption. We talk about information production and sharing. We talk about unpacking media messages and resolving contradictions. We talk about free speech and censorship, what it is and what it isn’t. In fact, this is maybe one of the most school librarian-y things that I do!

So how does it work? The leadership team decides what topic feels most pressing, we set a date to invite the student body to a discussion session, and then they collaborate to research and create a short presentation with discussion questions. The goal is to give some background information on topics students care about and that are not necessarily covered anywhere in the curriculum, and then to open the forum for discussion. We invite everyone, and usually somewhere between sixteen and twenty students show up— after school on a Friday— for yet another zoom meeting. I call that a raging success.

I begin each session by reviewing our community norms, the leadership team gives their brief presentation, and then we discuss. The meeting lasts an hour. We have some regulars that always show up, and we have new faces each time. Sometimes students talk about what happens in their classrooms or in their homes when it comes to political discussions. Sometimes the discussions are emotional. I frequently don’t have answers to all their questions, or their questions are ones that have no clear answers, but I try to follow up the best I can.

TYPE is definitely one of my favorite things. None of it is attached to a grade or a class or a research project, yet these kiddos show up, time after time, looking for space to develop their political and civic identities. They show up on a Friday after school to talk about the news they consume and the research they do on their own, to compare notes, to compare source material. I think school libraries are great spaces for this work. The public libraries of my youth certainly were. I’m glad my school library is growing its reputation as one of those spaces, and most of all, I’m so grateful that school librarianship provides a trusted and trustworthy context for this work .

Do you talk politics with your students, or promote civic engagement? I’d love to hear what you’re doing!






2 thoughts on “Talking politics with students

  1. Your description of the organization (TYPE is a great acronym), your role in the meetings, and the student role in this collaborative process are thought-provoking. This structure could be used for other student-lead/librarian guided organizations. Thank you for sharing your model for the library as a center for civic engagement.

  2. Thank you so much for helping us think through this process for organizing! This is the kind of infolit, medialit, civics, and school librarianship for the “real world” that growing numbers of kid seem to be seeking! Amazing stuff, Nora! Thank you!

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