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Sociologists Help Students Understand Informed, Respectful Opposition

A faculty member and a grad student from the college brought a contemporary issue into a local school to help students understand the complexities of social change and find ways to formulate and respectfully express opinions.

Professor of Sociology Deana Rohlinger and sociology Ph.D. candidate Cynthia Williams conducted an exercise focused on the Take a Knee movement, engaging students in seventh grade civics classes at Tallahassee’s Swift Creek Middle School, February 6.

The practice of professional sports players kneeling rather than standing during the national anthem has become a high-profile and contentious means of protesting racial difficulties in the U.S. The exercise was intended to defuse the often heated reaction to this practice on both sides and to help students understand that social change can be difficult and controversial, according to Rohlinger.

“Our goal is to help them better understand social change, which students typically associate with the past rather than the present,” Rohlinger said. “The exercise reminds them that change is hard, the tactics individuals use are almost always controversial, and respect and compromise are central to the process.”

Each student was asked to take one of nine pre-set roles in the exercise, e.g., an NFL player who disagrees with taking a knee or a politician or veteran who opposes it. Students then worked in small groups to compose a tweet announcing their position and their reasons for either supporting or opposing the practice.

As background, Rohlinger prepared a Power Point presentation that contextualizes the Take a Knee movement in the broader civil rights movement. She and Williams also created position sheets, including quotes from real-life people, on why the movement may be right or wrong, along with questions to guide the role play.

“I think this is important so you stay informed and you get to talk about it with other people,” said seventh-grader Kamaya. “You get to see different aspects of what they think.”

The Power Point will now be used in all seventh grade civics classes at the school. Rohlinger said the exercise fits with units on political participation, the Bill of Rights and the criminal justice system.

“Middle school is a great time to talk to students about the serious issues happening in our society because they’re old enough to form their own opinions and they’re old enough to begin to critically analyze new information and figure out how it fits into their worldview,” said Williams, a former middle school teacher.”

“This exercise encourages students to engage with opinions and arguments from both sides of the issue,” she added. “It’s an excellent way for students to involve themselves in this controversial social issue while also highlighting the importance of civility, the ability to articulate your stance on an issue without devolving into name-calling, and remaining respectful of those who think differently than you.”

Rohlinger’s research focuses on political participation and how collective movements effect change. As an invited member of the research network of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, she strongly advocates critically analyzing one’s own opinions and the opinions of others rather than lashing out uninformed.

She also maintains that, in addition to the positive effects of learning civil discourse, this exercise also provides students with a new appreciation of the social sciences and fits solidly into the way other sciences are now taught in schools.

“We’re used to students learning about physical sciences at an early age and conducting controlled experiments,” she said. “This exercise gives them a glance into the social sciences and how researchers identify and study a complex, ever-changing world.”

Sociology Professor Deana Rohlinger works with students on an
exercise in political participation and respectful, informed disagreement.