Teaching American Politics: Setting Discursive Expectations on Day One

Setting The Discursive Expectations on Day One

Ideas for using the “Four Corners” Activity in Synchronous and Asynchronous Courses

Katie Zuber (CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice), Muhammad Hassan Afzal (Kent State University), Andrew Bloeser (Alleghany College), RJ Groh (University of Tennessee Chattanooga)

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Introduction

Every Introduction to American Politics course begins with a first day of class and a distinctive array of teaching challenges. Although some students enrolled in the course will have a strong appetite for studying American politics, others are invariably less interested and some may even find politics unpleasant. Some students will be highly motivated to engage in discussions about political issues and events, while others will be much more hesitant or inclined to refrain entirely. Some of these differences may reflect variation in students’ personalities (Mondak 2010), learning styles, or personal circumstances (Bromly 2013; Jose, Berry, and Andrews 2019).

However, in our current political moment, other factors are also at work. We live in a moment when many politically active citizens—the citizens most visible in political life—are often highly polarized and frequently hostile toward one another. Democrats and Republicans increasingly report more negative feelings about each other (Iyengar et. al. 2019) and even regard each other as threats to the nation itself (Pew Research 2014; See also Pew Research 2019). The political discourse most readily available to many citizens—and the kind of political discourse with which our students may be most familiar—has been described as an “outrage industry” that inflames political resentments (Berry and Sobieraj 2013; See also Levendusy 2013).

In this kind of political environment—the only political environment our students have ever known—trepidation about participating in political discussions, even in a classroom space, is understandable. But it is not inevitable. We argue that one indispensable goal of introductory American politics courses is to help students develop a greater level of comfort engaging in political discussions. Although the ultimate goal may be to help students become more skillful at political discussion, developing greater comfort is often a first step for many students. Addressing this specific challenge is one that can, and we argue should, begin on the first day of class.

The first day of class provides an important opportunity for establishing norms of conduct for the entire semester. With any luck, students may also carry these norms of conduct with them as citizens even after the semester ends. Given that students studying American politics for the first time may perceive our political environment as a realm of hostile discourse, and given that many people find disagreement uncomfortable more generally (Mutz 2006; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002), we argue that one important goal for a first day of class is to help students become more comfortable taking public positions. A second important goal is to help students recognize that, along the divisions that characterize American political life, some shared understandings also exist across lines of difference.

With the goals in mind, we suggest one activity that teachers of American politics can try with their students on the first day of class.

This activity was inspired by and draws heavily from the “Introduction to Civil Action” developed by Generation Citizens. Full Activity Here.

1. The Four Corners Activity and Its Goals

In this entry, we present materials for teaching practice known as the “Four Corners” activity, which is designed to give students experience with taking positions on political issues and opportunities to recognize the diversity and complexity of others’ perspectives. As its name implies, the “Four Corners” activity asks students to move to one of the four corners of a classroom to convey their position on an issue the instructor presents to the class. Each corner corresponds to whether students “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree,” or “strongly disagree” with a position on a political issue the instructor poses to the class. It is an activity that is scalable to a variety of class sizes. It is also an activity that teachers can use in both in-person classes and asynchronous classes (by creating an analog to the four corners of a physical classroom).

Teaching Objectives

The teaching objectives we recommend for this activity include the following:

  • To retain students beyond the first day of class by engaging them actively in discussion
  • To establish an inclusive classroom where different ideas and experiences are welcome
  • To establish that differences of opinion exist among members of the class
  • To encourage students to take positions on issues in the presence of disagreement
  • To create an opportunity to students to identify areas of shared understanding (if they exist)

Student Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, students should be able to do the following:

  • Demonstrate recognition that disagreement, debate, and discussion will be part of how they engage in the study of American politics
  • Demonstrate a willingness to take positions on political issues in the presence of others who disagree with them
  • Reflect on any difficulties they experience with taking positions on political issues in the presence of disagreement
  • Demonstrate recognition that people who disagree on some issues may also share some understandings and concerns about the state of American politics
  • Reflect on any examples of shared understandings that emerge during the activity

Considering Students’ Lived Experience and Potential Vulnerabilities

Although one purpose of the Four Corners activity is to help students gain experience with taking stands on political issues–including controversial issues–it is also important to bear in mind the potential range of students’ lived experiences and their vulnerabilities when deciding which issues to task students about during the activity. It is possible that instructors will have students in class who have experienced threats or even violence because of their political views. The instructors who participated in the creation of this entry, for example, have worked with students who have experienced threats on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and immigration status. Some of us have worked with students who have lived through genocides or have lost family members due to use of force by police. While the reality of such experiences are one reason students need experience taking stands on political issues, we encourage instructors to take a careful approach when using an activity that asks students to express their political stances on the very first day of class.

In some settings, students may feel prepared to take stances on political issues even if they feel vulnerable or find some topics triggering. In other settings, however, instructors may find it prudent to develop a context of trust in their classes before asking students to express their positions on issues where some students may feel especially vulnerable, to the detriment of their ability to learn effectively. Moreover, what constitutes an issue that may make students feel vulnerable can depend on the composition of a school’s student body and the political culture of the area where the school is located. Ultimately, although we suggest being careful and intentional about the questions instructors choose to ask in the Four Corners activity on the first day of class, we believe instructors are in the best position to discern the considerations that apply to their specific situations.

2. Using the Four Corners Activity in Different Modalities

Synchronous, In Person

Purpose

To encourage students to probe their own understandings about American government and its relationship to society while helping students feel comfortable participating in class discussions. In addition to getting students to think about the role of government in their everyday lives, the purpose of this activity is to establish classroom norms of discussion early on.

Materials & Preparation

  • Paper to create “Strongly Disagree,” “Disagree,” “Agree,” and “Strongly Agree” posters for use in Four Corners activity. Posters should be created prior to coming to class.
  • At the start of class, hang “Strongly Disagree,” “Disagree,” “Agree,” and “Strongly Agree” posters in four different corners of the classroom.

Introduction

  • Welcome students
  • Identify yourself as the Instructor and establish your role in the classroom.
  • Student Introductions: Divide students into groups of three. Have them discuss and get to know one another, including one memorable fact about themselves. Have each student introduce another student from the group (or some other ice breaking activity).

Using the Four Corners Activity

Explain to students how the Four Corners Activity Works

  • You will read a series of statements out loud. Students will move to the corner of the room with the poster that reflects most closely how they feel about an issue (Strongly Disagree,” “Disagree,” “Agree,” and “Strongly Agree”).
  • Instruct students that they will have only a few moments to decide where to go.
  • Encourage students to act quickly without worrying about the direction in which other students are traveling. Emphasize that everyone will have different perspectives and that all perspectives are deserving of recognition and respect.
  • Read the statements prepared for the activity out loud.
  • Once students have traveled to the appropriate corner or the room, ask students from different groups to explain why they’re standing in the corner they’ve chosen. Begin with simple statements that enable students to identify points of commonality and difference between them before offering more challenging statements aligned with their views about government and its relationship to society. After each statement, ask two or three students from each group to explain how and why they feel about a particular issue. Note the last three questions in particular elicit student responses about government.

Generation Citizens suggests the following statements (brainstorm other ideas?):

  • I like dogs more than cats.
  • The Red Sox are better than the Yankees. (or Giants and A’s)
  • I think students should be paid to go to school
  • I think anyone should be allowed to own a handgun.
  • I believe that government affects my life on a daily basis.
  • I believe that our government responds to the needs of its citizens
  • I believe that I can affect how government functions

Debrief

  • Probe students on what it felt like to see differences of opinion within the classroom. Did they learn something new or alter their opinion in any way after hearing from other students’ explanations? How did it feel to be in a larger group versus a smaller group?

Develop a List of Classroom (Discussion?) Norms

  • Present a preliminary list of (discussion?) norms to the class
  • Ask students to brainstorm additional items. In addition to the questions presented in the debriefing, ask students to think about (1) the conditions under which students feel safe participating; and (2) acceptable versus unacceptable classroom behavior.
  • Include (discussion?) norms on the syllabus (the equivalent of a contract students sign)

Asynchronous:

On the first day of class, asynchronous learning activities can benefit from a seemingly limitless choice of resources. When choosing a tool to support first-class asynchronous activities, we should consider accessibility, user-friendliness, and level of complexity.

Materials & Preparation  

When we explore using a new tool in an asynchronous course context, we should assist our students in navigating, participating in, and engaging meaningfully in these external learning settings. One way to do this is by including a video tutorial with captions on the course website and linking to this video in a welcome message to students enrolled in your asynchronous course. Instructors can also use a discussion board that allows students to communicate any challenges they have with using particular tools for asynchronous learning as a discussion board can enable feedback from the instructor and also allow students to help each other troubleshoot problems. Furthermore, many instructors and professors have previously examined various tools for online learning and have shared “how-to” videos on YouTube. We recommend providing low-stakes, simple introduction and “how-to” videos (less than three minutes) to enable learners to navigate and engage with these tools and resources.

For the purpose of using the Four Corners activity in an asynchronous setting, we recommend using the Padlet tool to facilitate asynchronous four corners activity. Many concise and resourceful YouTube videos explore using Padlet in synchronous and asynchronous settings. We have hyperlinked a few links above to facilitate these steps.

Once we have finished setting up our Padlet for the Four Corners activity, we need to ensure three things:

  1. On the design of the Padlet page for this activity, the central statement must stay in the middle of the page, and should ideally include a relevant and attention-grabbing background picture.
  2. Allow the learners to pick a position from four corners using the heart emoji (Setting a Reaction a Like). We recommend avoiding upvote/downvote and rating stars to ensure simplicity and clarity for the intended purpose of this activity.
  3. To keep the four corners Padlet page concise and functional, we recommend turning off the comment section. Otherwise, some choices tend to get lengthy responses, and the shape of the page changes.
Figure 1: A sample Padlet outlook of the Four Corners activity in the asynchronous learning environment.
Figure 1: A sample Padlet outlook of the Four Corners activity in the asynchronous learning environment.

Padlet Guide for Teachers

Using the Four Corners Activity

Figure 1 provides a sample outlook of a Padlet page that shows the Four corner activity in an asynchronous course setting. When students start participating and sharing their stances on a specific statement provided by the instructor, the number of the hearts next to each choice will go up to show the numbers. This activity also ensures the anonymity of the learners as well as an additional layer of security by turning off the comment section, so the environment stays comfortable for everyone.

One limitation of the asynchronous format, of course, is that students will not indicate their issue positions in real-time and in front of others the way they would in an in-person, synchronous setting. However, students who do the Four Corners activity in an asynchronous course will still have the opportunity to observe the presence of disagreement among their classmates and consider why such disagreements exist. Likewise, they will have the opportunity to discern whether areas of agreement exist on some matters, even among people who disagree on others. This can help students recognize the existence of diverse perspectives, and the complexity of such perspectives, even if they never interact synchronously with their classmates. In this sense, some of the core objectives of the Four Corners activity can still be met in an asynchronous setting. Of course to meet those objectives, it remains important to clearly communicate the purpose, objective, and post-activity debrief to make the Four Corners exercise impactful and meaningful.

 Debrief/Post-Activity Reflection

As noted above, instructors may find value in asking students to engage in a post-activity reflection. Pedagogically, this type of reflection can help students retain lessons imparted by participating in the activity. It can also provide instructors with the opportunity to assess whether students experienced the activity in a way that comports with the activity’s objects. For instructors who are interested in building this type of student reflection and assessment into their use of this activity, we suggest two possible approaches.

The first approach is the simplest. It takes the form of a written assignment that asks students to respond, in no more than one paragraph, to these three questions:

What did you learn about your classmates from participating in this activity?

How did it feel to take a position on political issues in the context of this class?

How will what you learned from this activity shape your own approach to communicating about political ideas during this class?

These questions are intentionally open-ended and do not specifically reference any of the specific learning objectives mentioned above. By posing questions in this way–without gesturing toward any particular learning objectives–it is possible to discern whether students independently met these objectives. To this end, the first question aims to discern whether students did, in fact, recognize the existence of disagreement and/or agreement among students in the class. The second question aims to discern whether students experienced any anxiety about taking a position or, alternatively, whether they found satisfaction in doing so. In addition to prompting students to consider their own reactions, this can also help instructors gauge the level of comfort different students may have with taking positions on political issues in class. The third, meanwhile, attempts to discern whether students are considering how to approach political discussions in a context in which agreement with their own point of view may vary.

Instructors who teach in-person, synchronous courses can also use this written reflection assignment, however, the specific value of using in an asynchronous course is to provide instructors with an opportunity to gauge student’s experience of the activity (since a synchronous class discussion is not possible). As an extension of this approach, instructors can also create discussion boards using most learning management systems (LMS). This provides a forum for students to share their experiences with one another. This can also be done in in-person and synchronous classes but, here again, there may be distinctive importance for using discussion boards in asynchronous courses in the absence of opportunities for synchronous class discussions.

References

Berry, Jeffrey M., and Sarah Sobieraj. 2013. The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion, Media, and the New Incivility. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bromley, Pam. 2013. "Active learning strategies for diverse learning styles: Simulations are only one method." PS: Political Science & Politics 46(4): 818-822.

Hibbing, John R., and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. 2002. Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs about How Government Should Work. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Iyengar, Shanto, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra, and Sean J. Westwood. 2019. "The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States." Annual Review of Political Science 22: 129-146.

Jose, Betcy, Michael Berry, and Leah Andrews. 2019. "Course format and student learning styles: A comparison of political science courses." American Journal of Distance Education 33(4): 262-275.

Levendusky, Matthew. 2013. How Partisan Media Polarize America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Mondak, Jeffery J. 2010. Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Mutz, Diana C. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pew Research Center. 2014. “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Available: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/

Pew Research Center. 2019. “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal.” Available: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/partisan-antipathy-more-intense-more-personal/

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