Navigating Personal (& Political) Beliefs to Purposefully Respond to Student Writing

With all the conversation and debate around “student indoctrination” and political beliefs of educators, after weeks of contemplation, I decided to put my experience out into the world to help people navigate their personal and political beliefs in the context of writing instruction. There is a certain level of vulnerability that comes with addressing our personal and political beliefs and how they influence us as educators, but without honest conversation, there cannot be progress. So, I ask that you keep an open mind, consider this perspective, and read in its entirety.

When we separate ourselves from our ‘teacher identity,’ it is often much easier to disagree with, correct, and discuss controversial issues with other people, but this is a markedly different experience than how we deal with these differences in opinion with students because we work so hard to establish and maintain a relationship with students. Our goal isn’t to be right–it is to enlighten, empower, and educate. We have to, somehow, find a way in this current political climate, to do all three of those while teaching critical thinking skills and, ultimately, acceptance.

My experience & personal motivation: For several years with my 9th graders, I used the research unit to give writers an opportunity to tackle a controversial issue they are passionate about. And, every year I braced myself for responding to essays that I inherently disagreed with, and every year, I was faced with that exact challenge.

I was ready.

I was teaching in a conservative, rural town in North Texas, in which I was the only non-white teacher of a core subject who wasn’t an athletic coach. And, to my knowledge, I was also the only openly non-straight teacher on campus and possibly in the district. In many ways, I think, to my students, I represented what people from the “city” are like; I represented what was ‘beyond’ the small town, which was embraced by many and rejected by some. While my orientation and generally liberal beliefs were not a mystery to my students, I was also committed to making sure that it never made my students feel like they couldn’t express their opinions or that they couldn’t disagree with me. There is, of course, a caveat to this–that no one would be permitted to be hateful.

My biggest test came the moment I read the title “Homosexuality is a sin” at the top of one of my student’s drafts. I had to take a few seconds to REALLY think about how to respond… to really think about what this WRITER needs from me as a diverse educator with unique life experiences different from their* own.

*this student will remain gender neutral in my references to this experience

And, while I don’t remember what my exact words were at this moment with the student looking at me for validation and/or feedback, I do remember the realization I had that this student didn’t know that his research essay was about proving that I was a sinner. I remember the realization that they didn’t know I was offended. I remember the realization that they were repeating what they learned to believe.

They were, ultimately, doing exactly what the research essay instructions outlined and, to them, they were stating a fact–not hate. So, I decided to stick with what I gave them, to stick with what my goals were for them as a writer, and to stick with knowing my truth. I knew in that moment that I could not show hate towards them or their writing. I had to show them the same love and acceptance that I would expect in return. I could not show judgment in that moment; I could not shut them down. Instead, I knew I had to give them new language, expose them to knew perspectives, research, and literature, and encourage them to think critically about why they believe what they believe and somehow also ensure that they understand the moral issues surrounding homophobia. Instead, I was grateful for the opportunity to guide them through this process in a way that no other teacher in that hallway could.

This month, I choose to write about something very difficult because it recounts how I swallowed my pride for the betterment of a student writer who could have chosen to write about something easy, but chose to write what they believed to be true. It recounts how I chose to fight my instinct of rejecting a student’s opinion and chose instead to challenge their thought process, reflect on their experiences, and open themselves up to a contradicting opinion. This month, I choose to write about how educators can maneuver this difficult political climate in the classroom when their beliefs do not align to those of their students.

...How do we do this?...
...How do we seek to improve the writing of students with which we inherently disagree?...
...How do we, whether conservative or liberal, put aside our personal beliefs while still challenging the critical thinking skills of our students?...
...How do we remain the best version of ourselves and give students exactly what we would want in return while getting them to consider other perspectives?...

Prepare yourself to relinquish control: If you are preparing your writers to write about controversial issues and you are preparing yourself to respond to that writing, there are important questions for everyone to respond to and reflect on that can help put experiences in context: 

What am I passionate about? 
What are some of my personal experiences that make me passionate about this topic? 
How do I usually react when others disagree with me on this topic? 
What assumptions do you tend to make about people who disagree with you on this topic? 
Am I open to perspectives other than my own? 

When we are prompting students to write about an injustice they see in the world or to write about a controversial societal issue, we open ourselves to anywhere between 80-180 varying opinions from writers who have, most likely, never been afforded this opportunity of self-expression and have not seen a positive example of how to discuss these controversial topics with integrity and respect for others. The second you commit to giving writers this opportunity and diverging from the dry, politically correct, and standardized essay prompts, you also relinquish your control. That’s why it is important to be intentional and reflective throughout the process, to remember that we can influence but not attempt to control what a student believes, and to hold ourselves accountable for how we choose to respond to student writing. 

The second you commit to giving writers this opportunity and diverging from the dry, politically correct, and standardized essay prompts, you also relinquish your control.

Listening without bias: It should come as no surprise that listening would be on my list of how we respond to student writing, but when we disagree so vehemently with an opinion, when we disagree with every fiber of our being, when we feel disparaged, it can feel impossible to listen. However, I want to add an additional level to listening in these situations: relinquishing control and authority. In these types of sensitive situations, it is all about putting our need for control aside because, as I listen to a student tell me why they believe that homosexuality is a sin, the only way to actually hear them is for me to remove my desire as a teacher to control or to use my authority to tell them that what they believe in is wrong, because if I do that, I have lost that student forever. Instead, I have to set the example in that moment of how I want that student to respond to someone who disagrees with them because I know that, two rows over, there are several LGBTQ students who will go to war for me and their community, that I must protect and support. I still need every student, including the one in question, to understand that I don’t condone homophobia and that I, obviously, don’t believe that it is a sin. This is what the student has been taught to believe, so I have to listen with an absolute unbiased ear, and make it clear that I will listen to their opinion and logic but not their hate. I will listen to his experiences but not his anger because I can argue with logic, opinions, and experiences, but I can’t argue with hate and anger because it isn’t rational. I have to exercise this level of listening with every student, whether I agree with them or not, because that is how I want to teach my students to listen to others. The second I demonstrate that I am not willing to listen without judgment, the student has the opportunity to decide that they won’t listen to me either and then I have lost the relationship and I have lost the writer. If I return their hate and anger, then, in their mind, all I have done is prove them right.

Ask the right questions & paraphrase: These questions are simple, but they are a starting place for initiating conversation with students to get them thinking about their beliefs, background, and personal bias. It is important to note that an important part of student responses to these questions is how they say what they say. Part of the expectations when students respond to questions like these must be to respond with respect and understanding. Asking the question and then letting them know it’s okay to think about it before responding can help them in the reflection process and allow it to happen without pressure.

“Tell me about your decision to choose this topic.” Simple, unbiased, and open… this is how we can start these difficult conversations. Not only does it give the student time to open up, it sends the message that you are ready to seek understanding. It also gives you time to get your own thoughts in order, especially if you feel triggered, which I have felt on several occasions when I give students ultimately freedom in their research. 

“What do you think has contributed to your perspective on this topic?” When the student is ready and has demonstrated that they trust my ability to listen without bias, then we can ask them to dig a little deeper and start making connections with how their previous experiences influence their beliefs. The goal here is to start the conversation or thought process of how opinions and beliefs are fluid, ever changing, and NOT absolute. 

“Why do you think some people believe the opposite of you?” This question, when timed properly, can get students to think about how other people’s experiences are different from their own. It is also about starting the process of challenging their logic (not their beliefs), so they can brainstorm ways to research for evidence that conflicts with their personal beliefs. The mission we can give students here is to find ways to seek understanding of those who believe the opposite of them. They do not have to agree with what they discover, but they must challenge themselves. This directly mirrors the process we follow in seeking to understand the student, despite our personal beliefs. 

And, since we never quite know what students are going to say, here are a few links to the paraphrasing stems to help support and facilitate these difficult conversations from Oregon Department of Education and Peoria Public Schools.

Challenge logic—not the belief: This, hands down, is the hardest part of the process—finding a way to challenge how a student thinks without intruding upon their beliefs. Whether conservative or liberal, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to separate our beliefs from our practices as an educator, but the truth is that, just like with the students, there will never be 100% split between these two parts of ourselves—they are indefinitely intertwined. However, if we allow ourselves to focus on the critical thinking skills of our students, then we accomplish something much bigger—to get them to reflect on why they believe what they believe. When we challenge their logic and not their belief, we demonstrate the exact skills we want them to gain in communication and empathy. We also encourage them to see the world as a series of grey areas—not black and white or right and wrong. For instance, after a student presented the proposed title: “Homosexuality is a sin” to me and I listened to his thought process and previous experience, and I learned quickly that my goal was to get him to see how religion influences the way people view sexual orientation. My mission was not to change his opinion, but rather, to ensure that he understands why people believe differently than he does and for him to find acceptance in that instead of being ready to fight about it. That, of course, came with a set of expectations and non-negotiables…

Uphold expectations & non-negotiables: When taking risks with student writing instruction, especially when the tasks are full of student choice and voice, there must be a clear set of expectations and non-negotiables set in place for the students. Oddly enough, I don’t actually use the word guidelines because I don’t want the students to question where I stand. I specifically choose the term ‘non-negotiables’ because I want them to have a clear understanding of what is most important. Examples of non-negotiables:

“Your writing cannot be hateful, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or violent towards anyone.”
“Your writing must consider and address multiple perspectives and misconceptions.”
“Your writing must reflect something you feel passionately about.”

I go one step further to discuss how writing is a representation of who we are, so we must, as writers, ensure that we are putting the best, most thoughtful, and respectful writing into the world. In today’s social climate, we have to specifically discuss what ‘hateful, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and violent’ mean in ways that are not black and white, but are systematic and manipulative.

In exchange for following these non-negotiables, I promise to, in turn, listen to their ideas without judgment and give them freedom to write about virtually any topic that exists in our school-provided database. I also explain that I will challenge them and their ideas in order to make them better writers and thinkers–not to influence their beliefs–because this writing and research is all about exploration. But, as we all know as writers and educators, this type of process, has the potential to organically change the way students view their beliefs because they are able to express them and reflect on how they have come to such conclusions. Without these opportunities, as uncomfortable as it may be, their opinions may never change and may never be challenged.

When it gets difficult to respond to student writing, remind yourself that the space in between us is what we have the power to change.

Remind yourself of the goals and skills focus: When writers do not follow through with the non-negotiables, we intervene immediately, as I did with the student in the previously outlined anecdote. We have the difficult conversations with the writers that not only show that we are listening, but also demonstrate a zero tolerance for hate, racism, and violence. As educators, we like to have control, but that’s not how we move writers from followers to thinkers. And, the reality is that we may not see the effects of what we do for them immediately, but the hope here is that the student will start thinking more critically about why they think and believe what they think and believe and, when they talk to someone who disagrees with them, they will ask questions instead of spew hate. We all have students we disagree with, but the reality is that we cannot force them to change in the same way that they cannot force us to change. When it gets difficult to respond to student writing, remind yourself that the space in between us is what we have the power to change. The goal is to get students to write, think, and discuss difficult and controversial issues with integrity and respect. We can only do this by setting the best possible example when we disagree with students. This is not the same thing as being silent and letting them write anything they want no matter what–absolutely not. This is about writers developing the skills to understand perspectives and moving them beyond the absolute.

As educators, we like to have control, but that’s not how we move writers from followers to thinkers.

Be open and honest about your own beliefs: As educators, we shouldn’t feel as if we should hide and we shouldn’t constantly fear retaliation. If students are going to be open and honest with us, we should be able to do the same in return, but it cannot be about us trying to change them to believe what we believe–that’s just not what it’s about.

“You know I have a wife, right?”

These are the words I said to my student who wrote the previously discussed essay during the last week of writing. 


I had treated them no different from the rest of my students writing their essays, and it was evident that they were confused. That confusion right there is why I chose to write this article and to help others navigate these difficult situations. I can’t change their mind about sexual orientation, but in that moment, I knew I had been successful. I earned their trust and taught them unconditionally. They didn’t understand why I helped them with their paper. I helped them with their paper because I wanted to demonstrate how they should treat people with whom they disagree. Ultimately, I showed them acceptance and I got it in return. 

We have to demonstrate this…how to have these difficult conversations right now because they are not seeing it in the media and they, most likely, are not seeing it at home. When students ask what I think about something, I tell them. I also tell them that it’s okay if they disagree with me because we have different experiences, but it’s not okay to be hateful. Depending on the topic, perhaps I will even share with them my experiences and explain how those experiences have influenced my beliefs because this is a writing and thinking skill that I can model for them and then show them how to achieve that level of understanding and self-expression.

— Starian Porchia

What are your experiences with responding to student writing with which you disagree? What opportunities have you created in your classroom for student expression and exploration? Planning on implementing these strategies? Send me your thoughts, reflections, and questions! =) Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @StarianBlake.

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Thank you!

How are you navigating the difficult political climate in your class while still challenging scholars to discuss controversial issues? I would love to hear from you! Tweet me @StarianBlake

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