Check your politics 
at the blackboard

Cary-Grove High School teacher Layne Holter talks with his current issues class Thursday during a lesson about prisons.
Cary-Grove High School teacher Layne Holter talks with his current issues class Thursday during a lesson about prisons.

Health care policy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abortion.

No topic is off-limits in many high school current events classrooms in the area.

While cable TV commentators have drawn lines and picked sides on virtually every issue, local current events teachers say they also have drawn lines and picked sides on one issue – teaching versus preaching.

Social studies teachers say they go to great lengths to let their students come to their own conclusions and not inject their own politics into class discussion.

“My goal is for students to walk out of class with a skill set they can use to look at the world,” said Layne Holter, a longtime current events teacher at Cary-Grove High School. “I generally keep my perspective out of it, even when they ask me.”

The topics in today’s charged-up political climate are seeping into social studies classrooms. People are angry, said Dennis Maher, a Hampshire High School government teacher.

“But so were the founding fathers,” he said.

And that’s where classes sach as his come in, he said.

“By the end of the term, I want my students to be speaking freely and expressing their own opinions,” he said. “To be able to articulate our own opinions is essential to our democracy.”

Letting students form their own opinions while not expressing your own can be tough, experts say.
In 2007, Fox River Grove District 3 fired middle school art teacher Dave Warwak – an avowed vegan – after, the school board says, he began teaching veganism and animal rights without informing the school, he told students not to disclose the lessons, and then did not answer officials’ questions.

“It’s a very fine line between education and indoctrination,” said Sue Blanchette, vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “You just walk the line and hope.”

But Blanchette said teachers need to make sure they “don’t be the sage on the stage.”

John Pellikan, a Prairie Ridge High School current events and history teacher, never gives his opinion in class. As an authority figure, he said, that’s not his place.

“By being so vanilla, it makes students come up with their own opinions,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is present both sides of an issue so a kid can do a clear, thoughtful and thorough analysis and come to their own understanding.”

In Brian Truax’s global issues class at McHenry East High School, students present most of the information, not the teacher. That, he said, helps keep his views out of it and lets the students come to their own conclusions on topics ranging from war to foreign policy to torture.

The only time Truax steps in, he said, is to serve as moderator.

“The rule is you can have your own opinions, but you cannot have your own facts,” Truax said.

Every Friday is newspaper day in Maher’s class in Hampshire. Students bring in an article and share their opinion of it.

“The only rule is nobody gets put down and everyone’s opinion is respected,” Maher said.

And the opinions run the gamut. Students are both liberal and conservative, as well as apathetic, he said.

“That’s your classroom, that’s America,” Maher said.

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