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A Los Angeles-area teacher asked Twitter how to explain the Kavanaugh saga to students. Thousands — including fellow educators — responded

Taylor Swaak | October 9, 2018

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Brett Kavanaugh is sworn-in as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by former Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy on Oct. 8 at the White House. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

A teacher seeking advice on how to broach Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious U.S. Supreme Court confirmation with his students sparked thousands of responses from fellow educators and observers on Twitter this past week.

Teacher Nick Ponticello had been searching for the best way to facilitate classroom discussion on what he considers a “big moment” in American history: The nomination of President Trump’s newest associate justice — accused in mid-September of sexually assaulting a woman in high school — transformed into a seething partisan battle that epitomized the nation’s gaping political divide. The Senate narrowly confirmed Kavanaugh 50-48 on Saturday as throngs of protestors rallied outside the Capitol.

“I really feel that civics is the No. 1 most important thing we can teach our students,” said Ponticello, who teaches high school math in the Los Angeles area. “You can’t just bury your head in the sand just because you’re a math teacher. It’s your job because you’re the adult in the room.”

But moderating talks on such a heated and complex topic is “tricky,” he said — especially when educators are expected to keep their biases at bay in the classroom. So he posted two tweets asking the Twitterverse for guidance: One on Sept. 29, two days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s hearings, and another on Saturday, after the deciding vote.

In the posts, he makes no secret of his own stance, asking if he should tell students “that this country doesn’t take sexual assault seriously? Do I tell them that truth and integrity don’t matter?” Ponticello identifies himself as an “educator” on Twitter.

Together, the two tweets racked up more than 8,500 comments, 13,000 retweets and 45,000 likes as of Tuesday afternoon. Feedback largely focused on teaching children about civic duty and encouraging them to vote. Other suggestions included holding a mock election, letting students lead discussions and publicizing available resources for those who are struggling.

Ponticello had already carved out class time in late September to moderate student discussion on Kavanaugh’s looming confirmation and had put the curriculum on hold Sept. 28 to stream the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting that spurred the re-opening of the FBI’s background investigation. But the responses to his tweet generated some new ideas too.

“A piece of advice that struck me was to tell them they can still volunteer” if they’re too young to vote, Ponticello said. “I had never really thought about that. … So it occurred to me that I could encourage students who are very concerned to volunteer for the causes that they care about.”

The responses often mirrored the split in public sentiment during the Kavanaugh saga.

Sylvia Chan-Malik, associate professor of American and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, commiserated with Ponticello when she read his Oct. 6 tweet. She remembered being “scared” to face her students the morning after Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

Many of them were puffy-eyed from crying and “looked like they hadn’t slept,” she recalled. She’d immediately sat them in a circle to talk. “After that experience, I said, ‘I have to figure out what to say.’ You can’t teach a whole room in despair.”

What she found helpful then and now is to remind students of other times Americans have persevered through moments of crisis.

“One mentor told me, ‘I lived through the ’60s, and within the span of four or five years we saw every single leader who we had our hopes and dreamed pinned on assassinated,” she said, mentioning Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy. “But we lived through that. And we’re going to get through now.”

She sees this resilient spirit in her students. The overwhelming mood on Monday, the first day back at school after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, was “frustrated” and “annoyed,” she said. But her students “want to be activists. They are ready to go.”

• Read more from The 74: ‘There Is an Open Question’: Four Religious School Choice Cases That Could Face SCOTUS and Kavanaugh

The conversation has been a little different for Chris Gubbrud, who teaches sixth-grade social studies in South Dakota’s Mitchell School District. The students are a bit young, he said, to delve into topics such as sexual assault allegations — though he noted he and his class have talked about “how much past mistakes could potentially impact your life, and to be careful about the choices you make.” But he is using this moment to teach related topics, such as the importance of staying informed on current events and reading multiple news sources.

“A lot of middle school kids are on social media, and they see all kinds of content,” he said. “And a role of the teacher, regardless of what you teach, is to show kids, ‘How can we determine where this came from? And how can we determine whether that’s a reliable source or not?’”

Gubbrud emphasized in his tweet to Ponticello that regardless of the lesson, it’s never teachers’ job to inject their own opinion or draw conclusions for students.

“At a divisive time in the history of the country, we have to make sure we’re giving kids a chance to think for themselves,” he said.

See more replies to Ponticello’s tweets here:

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