Middle School Students Deliberate Foreign Policy Using Philosophical Chairs

Foreign policy and the role of the United States in the world have come to the forefront as events in Ukraine unfold before us.  The Educating for Democracy Roadmap provides a framework for K-12 classrooms to explore the theme of “A People in the World” through both history and civics with driving questions that include:

  • What does it mean to be a nation among nations?
  • How has the United States dealt with different types of external relationships (conflictual and cooperative) across its history?
  • How do American constitutional principles influence the conduct of foreign policy?
  • How has United States foreign policy changed across our history?

Rebekka Camacho, a 7th-grade social studies teacher from Aurora West Unit School District 129, used recent events in Afghanistan and current events related to the recent Olympics to have students explore the essential question, Should the United States intervene in other countries when there are suspected human rights violations?

Rebekka was a participant in the Guardians of Democracy Winter Microcredential cohort, earning her Silver Badge in the proven practice of current and controversial issue discussions. Facilitating student-to-student discussion provides students an opportunity to deliberate essential questions facing their community. This is an authentic practice to build and practice rigorous and relevant content knowledge, civic skills, and dispositions per the Illinois civics course requirements for middle and high school.

We asked Rebekka to share her reflections on engaging her students in a current and controversial issue discussion with the strategy of Philosophical Chairs. Here are her responses.

Briefly describe your topic for your current and controversial issue discussion. 

My topic was intervening when there are suspected human rights violations.  My prompt was: Should the United States intervene in other countries when there are suspected human rights violations?  This is an open issue because the US government is trying to decide when, where, and how we should get involved throughout the world to help people in need.  This is relevant to my students for several reasons.  First, we have a large immigrant and refugee population.  Some of the students sitting in my class have come from countries where there are human rights violations currently happening.  Another reason is because of what they have learned this year.  Students have studied humanitarian aid and human rights this year.  They understand that there are problems throughout this world that need addressing.  One of our main themes in class is “most of the world does not live the way you do.”  We have used this as a starting point for making the students more aware of what is happening in other parts of the world.  This is also tied into a novel study that we are doing about Afghanistan.

What strategy did you use for this discussion? Why did you choose this strategy? 

I chose Philosophical Chairs because students are not trying to come to a consensus or right answer.  I don’t feel as if this will be emotional for the students, so they should be ok to discuss and openly listen to all sides.

How did students gain the necessary background knowledge for this discussion?

Students gained their background knowledge through a list of several sources about what is currently happening in Afghanistan and China.  Students already had some background knowledge about Afghanistan and the Taliban because of prep for our novel study.

How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?

Students were able to have a better understanding of how governments in other countries not only do not protect citizens’ rights, but in some cases, they are the ones violating their rights.  Students were also able to brainstorm reasons why America should or should not get involved,  looking closely at benefits and possible problems that could occur from U.S. involvement. At the conclusion of the discussion, students reflected:

  • “The Taliban may benefit if we help Afghanistan. I thought that was persuasive because it made me reconsider my choice of “yes”.”
  • “Can we actually help? Is there something that we can try to do without harming ourselves as well?”
  • “The US has fought off the Taliban before but when they left, the Taliban took control again. I found this interesting because who’s to say it won’t happen again?”
  • “Why can’t any other (developed) countries help Afghanistan?”

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?

It gave students the opportunity to understand how fortunate we are simply because we live in a country that prides itself on the freedoms it allows its citizens.  We do not have the same worries as many other people throughout the world.  I hope it made them grateful for what they have.

What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this issue?

This topic, protecting human rights worldwide and America’s role in that mission, is one that we can keep addressing as we discuss other issues.  We will be examining the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the UN and identifying the ones we feel are the most important.  This activity could also help us during our genocide unit as we explore which past human rights issues we have gotten involved in and why.  

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in classroom discussions?

Discussion, including that of controversial topics, is an integral part of student learning.  Students must have a safe, structured place to explore ideas and hone their discussion skills.  Engaging students in a discussion can be time-consuming and hard work for teachers, but it is so worth it for student engagement and learning.  It is also a necessary skill for creating engaged future citizens.

If you are interested in participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program, registration is now open for the spring and summer cohorts. For more information, including course syllabi, visit https://guardiansofdemocracyteachers.org/.