Students discuss the place of sharing opinions inside the high school

By Noah Mizer, ’21, Ben Rigney-Carroll, ’21 and Josie Stewart, ‘21

Senior Emma Mitchell walked into her last orientation with a red “Make America Great Again” hat in hand. She sat down, put on the hat and smiled widely for her student ID picture, but her jokingly ironic accessory did not go unnoticed by others. 

A picture of her wearing her red hat was printed on her ID, but it was also posted on Twitter and later received many comments calling her “privileged” and a “total loser.”

“Students, or people of our age, are [usually] a lot more vocal about things and a lot more comfortable about saying exactly how they feel on the internet,”Mitchell said.  “When it comes to controversial things, [people our age] are a lot more loud and out in the open when they disagree about things.”

Although mostly students outside UAHS criticized Mitchell’s photo, it was not the first time she received backlash on social media for sharing opinions. Ultimately, Mitchell’s situation regards the students’ abilities to express their opinions freely—without fear of criticism—at the high school.

 

IDEOLOGICAL IDENTITIES

As the 2020 general election approaches and many students prepare to become registered voters, ongoing discussions about political views have been occurring in and out of the classroom.

Sophomore Anneliese Johanni said this type of political discussion often involves personal and religious beliefs which some students find difficult yet important to talk about.

“I am proud to say that I am able to speak my mind and not be afraid of it,” Johanni said. “Yes, I sometimes fear that people will think differently [about me] because of my opinion, but I also know that if I don’t speak it—I become complacent.”

Some students find that even opinions most students disagree with should be shared in the classroom.

“I am a firm believer in thefreedom of speech, as long as it’s not bullying” said Emma Mitchell.

Senior Gretchen Mueller shared where she chooses to draw the line.

“Generally, I don’t agree with people sharing things that are anti-women or anti-LGBTQ+ or anti-any race,” Mueller said. “Morally, I am opposed to those views. There is a line between a conservative view and [a] hateful view. I think there are some liberal views that can be inappropriate, like if they go too far on the feminism spectrum and say something like, ‘Women over everyone.’”

Junior Nick Schumacher also knows thelimits of what to share in the classroom. But although he finds some views to be too far, he and many other students support students speaking their minds whenever possible.

“I’m all for free speech, unless it’s something that’s like, you know, horrific. I feel like 99 percent of things should be shared in school,” Schumacher said. “I feel like it’s okay to have an opinion and people should respect it.”

Though it can seem simple to draw a line at the at the morally ambiguous, oftentimes issues of a political nature can be religiously affiliated,making something one student sees as unacceptable an opinion or essential belief for another student. Johanni shared some opinions she has, knowing many others might disagree with her views. 

“I tend to stick to Catholic faith ideas, so that’s illegal abortion, and I don’t support LGBTQ+. However, I do feel that we should still love them and that [sexuality] doesn’t define them.”

When discussing their own views in the classroom, many students try to maintain a separation between the way they view their peers and any differences in their political views. Senior Annabel Davies explains the conundrum of trying to make this distinction.

“I lose respect for certain people based on their political opinions, which I know I shouldn’t do, but the state of America is so polarized right now that you love it or you hate it,” Davies said. “It’s hard to be an independent, and it’s hard to sit in the middle.”

Despite trying to be fair to the viewpoints of others, students who hold unpopular or minority viewpoints are often forced to defend their opinion against the arguments of the majority. Sophomore David Butz describes a time in his AP government class when his opinion was among the minority.

“We were talking about the abortion issue, and most people were taking the side of the right for women because of rape and incest. I was taking the position of abortion is killing a person,” Butz said. “I was the only one saying that, but I knew some people inthe class agreed with me.”

Butz is among one of UAHS’s many silent minorities; groups who chose not to speak up about their opinions due to fear of social backlash. 

Mitchell agrees support can often seem nonexistent, but says it’s always present nonetheless. 

“There’s quiet support with anything controversial. I had a situation sophomore year, and when people supported me it was usually on a quieter scale,” she said.

Considering that so many students advocate the sharing of ideas, it seems contradictory that those same groups of individuals could feel as if their opinions may have social consequences. This self-imposed double standard acts as a filter for how some students choose what to say. This what type of environment is best for students to express opinions and how teachers can provide a comfortable space for the exchange of ideas raises questions 

“I think teachers should draw the line when [students are] making threats against each other or doing something besides verbal disagreement,” said Butz.

Mitchell has a similar view on freedom of speech, but she thinks verbal insults and bullying go too far.

“I think people should be able to share their opinions as long as it’s not negatively directed at another person or unkind,” said Mitchell.

INSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Given that students are still developing their opinions until they become active parts of society and the political process, the years students spend in high school represent some of the most formative years. In many UAHS classrooms, students are given opportunities to discuss their views and have important debate. In order to foster positive discussion many teachers seek to allow students the freedom to lead their own discussions or to handle respectful debate. 

Government teacher Doug Rinehart facilitates his classroom debate in order to make it a forum where students are thoughtful and comfortable.

“It’s ideal to have disagreement because disagreements are going to make students think,” Rinehart said. “The last thing I want to do is tell them this is how you should [think. I aim to] sit on the sidelines and ask maybe a few different questions that maybe students haven’t thought of. [I] try to tell [students], ‘Hey, I disagree with this,’ even if I truly agree with them to make them think.”

Rinehart also shares his belief about the importance of objectivity in grading and comfort in the classroom. 

“I want them to feel comfortable sharing their views and not thinking that I’m judging them for this or that their grade is dependent upon[their position in a discussion] [their position in a discussion, but rather their support for their position],” he said.

In government classes, both Mueller and Butz said their teachers created a good environment to share opinions. 

“I feel like there have been disagreements in [my] class, but my teacher, at least, has done a really good job staying nonpartisan and supporting both sides,” Butz said.

But Schumacher said he has had teachers in the past who did not share Rinehart’s goal of objectivity.

“I feel like most teachers are on one side of the political spectrum.  [About] 80 percent of my ideas or more [are] toward the opposite end of that spectrum,” he said. “So I feel like occasionally some teachers will get upset if I share my opinion on guns or something like that and they’ll either think differently about me, or they’re just really, really not like that.”

When concerned with bias, though, Mueller add that her opinions are usually similar to that of her teachers and does not experience much bias.

“I’ve never been graded differently by a teacher because I’ve stated my views,” she said. “I have gotten the sense from a lot of my teachers that they have a liberal bias so I wouldn’t feel afraid of saying what I think.”

In a voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 182 students, 45 percent said that they believe that most teachers are unbiased when grading assignments, and this difference usually comes from students on different sides of the political spectrum. Students such as seniors Pierce Barrett and Annabel Davies said that bias is sometimes found in grading of assignments for students who have opposing opinions to their teachers.

“There was one time where I was sitting in the front row, so I could hear the teacher talking to another [student] about their paper, and the teacher flat out told the student that her opinion was wrong on her paper and she had to change the topic to match [the teacher’s] opinion,” Barrett said.

Davies said there is always some underlying bias for a teacher when reading or hearing an opinion from a student on the opposite wing. 

“I feel like a conservative teacher would look at a student who is liberal and think that they are a whiny hopeful liberal, like “Women’s rights!” and people at the border. They would be like, ‘You don’t know the real world. You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Davies said. “While a liberal teacher would look at a conservative student and think, ‘You’re uneducated, clearly you don’t know what’s going on.’”

Barrett agrees and said teachers naturally have favorites, especially if they share the same political views. 

“I feel like teachers will have their favorites, especially when their opinions match,” Barrett said. “It’s worse, too, if a student is a really good student and their opinions or views don’t match, because then that teacher can’t really dislike the student, because they’re still a good student, they just have different opinions.”

Rinehart counters this as an experienced teacher saying that teachers he knows grade without bias.

“I think that the colleagues I know are fair and they’re good people and they work really hard at what they’re doing. I don’t want to come across as an apologist for anybody. Teachers here really work hard. They have the students best interests in mind,” he said. “Students will have a variety of reasons to think they’re being their grade is bad or maybe a score is not good. It might be easier to say it’s due to bias rather than it being the quality of work.”

TO SAVE OR TO SHARE

Although there is always a chance of bias or backlash, most students agree that you should share your opinions nonetheless—whether it be online, in the classroom or during a debate.

While students such as Schumacher have experienced opposition both in the high school and online, he says he will always continue to share his opinion at the end of the day and many students are in agreement. 

“Whenever you speak your opinion, you’re risking that people may disagree with you, but if you don’t speak them at all then what is the point of having an opinion?” Johanni said.

Although an opinion may side with the minority, there is most likely another voice who agrees with it. Rinehart thinks in the end this will help students grow in their learning and understanding of others’ views.

“The best classes are where students have a diversity of opinions that are respectful of one another,” Rinehart said. “So I think if [we] have students that support President Trump, we have students that are opposed to President Trump. It’s generally good to have that kind of diversity. It makes people think and challenges their views and it helps students grow.”

Davies said, “If no one shared their opinions, it’d be a much more boring world to live in.”