By C.M. Bateman
At the heart of most schools’ curriculum, the understanding of social and political issues seems to be suppressed under the demand for students to comprehend Common Core and the push for students’ ability to take standardized tests well.
Often, it takes an extreme act of social injustice to spark a conversation about political issues in schools; when in reality, people all across the nation face many forms of injustice every day, whether it be small acts of inequality or an event as large as a riot.
An article published by The Atlantic confronts the question of whether controversial issues belong in the classroom head-on, stating, “Some teachers have not acquired the background knowledge or the pedagogical skills—or both—to lead in-depth discussions of hot-button political questions. Most of all, though, teachers have often lacked the professional autonomy and freedom to do so.”
Here at Summit Public School: Tahoma, the case might be a little different. There is a whole course dedicated to open discussion about politics and social issues called Sociology of Law.
The course is taught by Lissa Thiele, an Expeditions educator with a background in law and social justice advocacy and a member of the Juvenile Justice Commission of Santa Clara County. For five years she has taught the Sociology of Law course at Summit schools; this year she teaches at Summit Tahoma, Summit Prep, Summit Rainier and Summit Denali.
Mrs. Thiele defines her course as a study of the legal system and the social patterns that influence the psychology of different groups of individuals. The class provides students with the tools and resources they need, not only in academics but also in social and emotional ways, to empower themselves to build the resilience necessary to be successful in Santa Clara County as civic-minded adults.
Josh Villalva, a junior at Summit Tahoma, has been taking Sociology of Law for two years. He opened up about what he will take from this class into his life outside of school.
“I, as a member of society, am directly affected,” Villalva expressed. “If I were to ever go to prison or get in trouble with the police, I would know what to do, what to say, and I would have an understanding of what to do in the situation, and so would others.”
Mrs. Thiele takes pride in emotionally and academically investing in the students in her classes, and Villalva’s statement touches on one of Mrs. Thiele’s specific goals for this class. When asked what she hopes students will take away from this course, she answered, “I want students to be able to take away the understanding of what their own personal rights are … and I want students to walk out of here feeling empowered and having learned resources of where to go and what to do as they experience injustice in this world.”
Another one of Mrs. Thiele’s most important objectives for this class is to strengthen students’ abilities to confidently participate in political discussions in the real world. Throughout the school year, students engage in multiple Socratic Seminars and watch films about social injustice, which allows them to reflect on current juvenile justice policies and pushes students to contribute in solution-based brainstorms to end sentences.
Very few other classes at Summit Tahoma, or in San Jose in general, model the type of curriculum that Sociology of Law presents. The class provides a safe space for students to open up about their opinions, no matter how controversial they might be.
The class also covers many political issues of the past and the present, as well as social issues— for example, the legalization of marijuana in California. Mrs. Thiele believes giving students the ability to share their perspective about issues most adults attempt to avoid is one of the most crucial and principal aspects of her class.
Mrs. Thiele largely advocates for those who lack a voice in history due to the “model of oppression” and “culture of power” she has personally experienced in studying history. One of her students relates to this concept of untold stories.
Elizabeth Huitron is a senior at Tahoma who just joined the course this year. Despite having been in the class only for a few weeks, she says she likes the class because she’s “learning a lot of stuff that I probably would have never learned before. Our school system doesn’t really teach us about these subjects.”
The lack of political and social education in the classroom, as Huitron stated, can be connected back to teachers’ caution in discussing controversial topics during school.
NPR interviewed the two authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, a book about helping students learn how to handle political questions, and asked these women various questions about politics in a school setting.
Their answers offered suggestions about how teachers should approach disputed issues while facilitating students’ conversations appropriately, and illustrated the importance of political discussion that forms students’ ability to express political views:
“And the point of the book is to say that, in general, to be able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. And it would be great if it were learned in school because these are great moments in which you bring a group of young people together who are forming their political views. They can really learn to engage across their differences and to start to see that political conflict is a normal part of democratic life.”
One of Mrs. Thiele’s previous students, Arianna Zavala, graduated in the spring of 2016 from Summit Tahoma and found herself more than prepared when it comes to sharing her political views in a brand new social and academic setting.
“Once I took that class, I learned to be more culturally and socially aware of things, of religion and cultures,” Zavala said. “Coming here, I also needed to do the same and respect other cultures and be aware that we’re all different and be accepting of that and acknowledge that.”
Zavala credits Mrs. Thiele’s course with helping her fine-tune her ability to share her opinions, noting, “In college, and in general, you need to be very outspoken; so being in the sociology class, I was able to discuss with my peers and be able to explain how I was trying to get my point across, helping me be more outgoing and more outspoken and getting me to say what I believe.”
Without a doubt, Mrs. Thiele’s curriculum pushes students to become contributing members of society by diving into these types of political and social topics and structuring her class as an safe, open environment for student perspectives.
Featured Image (top of this post): Mrs. Thiele jots down notes to discuss with the class after 13th.