Educators today may hesitate to host political discussions in the classroom. This hesitation is understandable: the state of our civil discourse is fraught, and the spread of misinformation can make productive conversation a difficult hurdle to clear. Avoiding politics altogether is not the answer either, though — particularly in the social studies classroom, where thoughtful exploration of political issues is key to developing students’ civic engagement.

The connection between politics and civic engagement is well established in several national frameworks for civics education. The National Council of State Legislatures, in its civics mission for schools, states that students should “act politically,” participating not only in voting but “public speaking, petitioning and protesting.” Educating for American Democracy, a research project dedicated to improving civics education, devotes one of its seven themes to an understanding of contemporary political debates. The National Standards for Civics and Government framework includes in its list of key questions, “What are civic life, politics, and government?” and “What are the foundations of the American political system?”

Obviously, it’s impossible to answer these questions without engaging in a discussion of politics. But how can educators broach this topic in a way that is constructive and furthers learning objectives?

To start, we should revisit our definition of the word “politics.” This word has become so heavily associated with political polarization that we might be surprised to discover its etymology refers to something else entirely. Politics is derived from the Greek root polis, the name for the ancient Greek city-state, and -ikos, or “pertaining to.” Politics are therefore the study of society — of how we live together.

This exercise can help us reframe politics in terms of the political process: the rights, behaviors, and institutions that make up the backbone of our society. With this definition in hand, we can begin to approach issues that may have originally seemed off-limits. Some examples of questions educators might explore with their students through the lens of politics as a process include:

  • What is the influence of mass media on politics?
  • How has representation in Congress changed over time?
  • Why is the process for allocating and drawing congressional districts controversial?
  • How has the right to vote been limited or extended to various U.S. citizens throughout the country’s history?

These questions, and many others like them, offer starting points for students to conduct their own investigations into issues that matter. With the right framing and the right frame of mind, we can engage students with political questions in a way that is thoughtful, respectful, and conducive to deeper civic engagement.

The questions above are drawn from ABC-CLIO’s award-winning databases for social studies curriculum and research. Click here for open-access resources from ABC-CLIO databases that engage students with meaningful questions about the political process.

Support civic education in high school U.S. history classes using American Government, one of 17 databases from ABC-CLIO available through EBSCO.

Containing authoritative resources to support teaching and learning, American Government connects contemporary issues with the foundations of government and compares the political and economic systems of the United States to those of other countries.