It says a lot about the current state of the United States of America that I considered not teaching with American Creed this semester. All I could think about were the many ways this topic could go wrong – especially when conducting our discussions asynchronously. After a tiny window of time in March where our country rallied together in the face of a catastrophic pandemic, we have spun apart even more dramatically. It has gotten to the point where I have to mute (on social media) some people that I love, people that I once respected, because I do not recognize that person or their values in the posts they make on social media. As a result of these national divisions I worried, especially because I live and teach in a pretty conservative part of the country, that I might find myself unable to connect with students whose beliefs are antithetical to my own. I have always had students whose opinions were different from mine, but in the past we were able to find connection and respect. Watching the disintegration of our civic discourse has made me question if such conversations are even possible today. These differences have grown dramatically worse than they were just this spring. I worry because so many people seem unwilling and unable to find the common ground necessary to have a real conversation about important issues facing our country. How can we hold an election in such an environment? How can I teach argument writing and critical thinking in such an environment? How can I build a class community in such an environment?
This polarization has been building to a head for some time. It is possible that the 2020 presidential election may break the US out of its death spiral and offer us the opportunity to find our balance again, but national leaders cannot do this work alone. We all must be willing to do our part and that is the work that I have decided to take on this fall. While preparing materials for my American Literacy class I rewatched the American Creed documentary again and I wish more people, especially my family and friends, would watch the documentary — or at least the trailer. While David Kennedy’s question “What does hold us together as a society?” has always been the driving question behind the work of previous semesters, it is Condoleezza Rice’s observation that “we’re coming apart” that haunts me. I hope it haunts you because if we do not seek the ties that bind us together as a nation then we will not survive — and truthfully what would be the point.
It was the Pantsuit Politics podcast, the Politics Guys podcast, and my minister (see Good Faith Arguments) that helped me find the way that I hope will allow me to engage with my students and, just maybe, with some others, too. I believe the way forward for me and my students is to focus not on the question “what does it mean to be an American” (because we see how that plays out on social media already) but instead to focus on the question “what are America’s values.” Specifically, we will frame those national values in the context of our personal values. I hope this approach will allow us to take off our team jerseys as we explore our personal values, the values upon which the United States was aspirationally founded, and the values we see the US upholding in the future. I know that my personal struggle with the friends and family that I feel I have lost to the dark side is that their radical opinions seem completely disconnected to the personal values I thought they held. The personal values that allowed us to stay connected despite other differences are no longer clear to me. Have those values been dissolved by hate and bile? Have their values changed fundamentally? Or do they see themselves as still living by those values? Can they take off their team jersey long enough to show me how their expressed opinions are in line with their core personal values or do they see me as irretrievable lost too?
For my handcrafted icebreaker for this fall season of pandemic teaching and learning during an election year that may make or break our nation, I revised the heraldry activity I used last year to create ValueSnaps (because social distancing). I did include some heraldry and symbolism, but also offered students a Ted Talk and the Museum of Values to guide them through the process of identifying their personal values. Note: I just discovered this great resource as another tool using Disney characters that could be used to support the exploration of values. For their ValueSnaps, I asked my students to identify three core personal values that influence their daily life then write a six word story, share an image to illustrate their story, and select a personal anthem that illustrates their values. I then asked them to write two personal reflections – one explaining their six word story and one explaining what they learned from the exploration process. I gave my students this model for inspiration. Already reviewing their ValueSnaps – in fact just scanning the list of values they put on a spreadsheet for me – has made me cry. Listening to their anthems and reading their reflections has made me actively sob. In part because this reminded me of one of the crucial reasons I love teaching with American Creed – my students give me hope for the future – but most of all because I can connect with my students as people. Their values, their stories, and the images and songs they are sharing with our community touch me to the core. That too gives me hope for America — and for my class community.
I can only hope that some of my older relationships can be rebuilt by the thoughtful sharing of values. Yes, hoping is one of my core personal values, but the fragile hope that I began this exercise with has now burgeoned into something bigger and more powerful. What seeds are you planting for a better tomorrow? What are you doing to give yourself hope? How are you giving your students hope?
Note: Here’s the American Creed essay I wrote in This I Believe format. I was inspired by this work to write the essay but now will share it with my students as workshop model: Voting For Hope.