Finding Refuge in the Heartland — The Educational Landscape

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) — From the assignments being completed, to administrators speaking out, the controversial topics which have defined the current political climate have trickled into the education system.

“There is so much going on all the time, that you really have to have the students keeping up. One way to do that is to weave examples in,” Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska Ari Kohen said. “Just to give them history and not to talk about what is happening right now I think is a huge miss.”

1011 News visited Professor Kohen in his classroom on campus to get a first-hand look at how he is integrating commonly-debated topics, such as refugee resettlement, into his teachings.

His style is simple — all opinions, and discussions, are welcome.

“I don’t check things at the door and I don’t ask them to, because I feel that is really unauthentic,” Kohen said. “They are political science majors and I am a political science professor, and if we can’t talk about politics, then we just admitted we have a monumental problem that we can’t get over.”

One of Kohen’s students, junior political science major Sam Butterfield, said he enjoys the style Kohen, and other professors at the university, are taking to address controversial topics.

He added his educators are drilling home a unified point throughout a number of his courses — accuracy.

“Having a basis of information that you can empirically prove or point to as the foundation of your argument is super important,” Butterfield said. “I think that is what most of my professors are trying to hammer in. Is just don’t make an argument unless you can back it up.”

One of the approaches Kohen is taking in the classroom is an assignment that allows his students to discuss, or even debate, their stances on topics such President Trump’s March 6 executive order.

However, the assignment is completed anonymously in blog form.

“So to supplement what they are reading, I am having them do a kind of blogging assignment,” Kohen said. “They are supposed to go out at least twice a week and pull out current events from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Jerusalem Post, Al Jazeera, wherever they can find stories that are happening now. Then they write two short posts a week and read each other's work.”

To read the blogs written by the students in Professor Kohen's class, click here.

Kiera Welch, a student is Kohen’s class, enjoys the assignment, but explained it takes a constant state of focus to be done correctly.

“We are constantly having to be read up on news so we are informed on our own opinions, so we can argue and collaborate with other students about theirs,” Welch said.

The junior political science major added this is a great habit to develop early in life.

“For any responsible citizen, it is good to, especially as a student, to be read up as much as you can,” she said.

Divisive topics have also made their way into other levels of education, as well.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, seven days after President Donald Trump signed his first executive order on refugee resettlement, Dr. Steve Joel, the superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools, released a roughly five minute video message to staff.

In the video, Joel addresses a shifting political climate, and how teachers and other staff should address controversial topics in the classroom.

“It is during these times of confusion and concern that our students and families need us the most. When it is most essential that we pay attention to the children’s need for reassurance and safety,” Joel states in the video.

To watch the full video, click here.

In a follow-up statement to 1011 News, the superintendent reiterated his commitment to keeping students feeling safe and secure within the walls of Lincoln Public Schools.

“Since we produced that video, we have been watching and observing what is being discussed in Washington D.C. We have asked administrators, teachers, and liaisons to pay extra attention to students who may be feeling stressed, and to make sure that we are dealing in facts, not rumors,” he said. “We always want to make sure we are prepared in case something comes up, and we are always reminding our teachers to keep teaching and keep loving all our kids."

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds released a similar statement on Jan. 30, referencing President Trump’s first executive order, and the welcoming nature of the institution.

“Our diversity is what makes the University of Nebraska an outstanding institution of higher learning. Universities like ours have a proud history of serving as talent magnets, where the best minds come to the table to solve the world’s biggest challenges,” the statement reads. “Now, more than ever, we must be more inclusive, not less. And universities should lead the way.”

To read the whole statement, click here.

Moving forward, educational institutions will be forced to adapt to sometimes rapidly changing political climates.

Whether the topic is refugee resettlement, immigration, or a number of other controversial issues, Kohen said as educators, it isn’t about taking a side, but preparing students for the future, and keeping their best interests in mind.

“I am not telling people ‘this is how you should vote’, or ‘good people think these things and bad people think other things’,” he said. “When I am in the classroom, what I always tell people is I am trying to teach students how to think, not what to think.”

This is Part Four of a five part series titled “Finding Refuge in the Heartland.” Part Five will air on March 9.