Local teachers: Students more engaged this year by presidential debates

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock Township High School Social Studies 10th and 11th grade students talk politics with their teacher Kirk Bower. Teachers locally and nationally say they are finding their students to be more interested in presidential debates and the election in general this election year than in past years.

Could celebrity status be engaging the interest of those not yet old enough to vote?

Local social studies teachers recently told the Sun-Gazette that they are seeing more interest in this year’s presidential election than in years past, and one reason could be both candidates have a higher public profile than in most years.

The high level of celebrity that comes with the candidates and what each one brings to the table has made students open up more about the race in class, said Kirk Bower, a social studies teacher in Loyalsock Township High School.

His students have been eager to watch the debates and talk about what happened, he said.

“I have kids running (into my class saying,) ‘Did you hear what he said?’ “ Bower said.

Before he had to nudge students to discuss issues, but now they are watching the debates and having good discussions about them, he said.

Years ago he would ask them to watch 10 minutes of the debates to get a gist of what was going on. This election, his students have willingly sat through all of the debates, Bower said.

“Students are a lot more in tuned this year because it’s a real-life situation. The decisions will directly affect them,” agreed Mike Snyder, Montgomery Area High School social studies teacher.

Issues such as immigration, college, race, police brutality and gun rights have been brought up in his government class, he said.

He tries to keep a comfortable environment for students to have open discussion about those topics, he said.

“My job is to facilitate conversations and have them be able to take information from a source and form their own opinion,” he said.

Last spring, Bower said his students were resonating with Bernie Sanders because he was addressing young people’s issues such as the cost of college tuition.

They are very honest with their comments but able to have civil debates, he said.

South Williamsport Area High School government teacher Ryan Carper also found that to be true.

Students have discussed what makes a candidate qualified to be the president, Carper said.

“Both candidates have checkered pasts and it would seem ‘checkered presents,’ but the greatest question is if these flaws impede the ability of each to carry out the duties prescribed to the president,” he said.

Bower said he jokes with his students that it is an “American Idol” style of voting with the presence of social media. Each candidate has a Facebook and Twitter account that has made a difference in reaching more people.

“I think much of the discussion is, ‘Did you hear what he and she said,'” he said. “I don’t know how deep it is as far as an issues campaign.”

Despite the negativity that continues to correlate with the election, the teachers see a positive side to students being interested in it.

Students are learning how to respect different viewpoints, Snyder said.

“These kids are young and they’re learning how to take information in and process and form an opinion,” he said. “They’re learning how to value other people’s opinions.”

The eagerness that students have to discuss politics is a positive outcome, Bower said.

“I really believe they see the importance of going to vote … if we don’t vote, we don’t have any leverage,” he said.

Carper said he hopes Americans in general and the students’ interests in the election will continue to keep them politically aware, learn more about issues and understand future candidates.

There is a chance the negativity will continue to turn off people to politics.

“It (could) further the distrust and disgust Americans have in the political process resulting in continued apathy,” he said.

He said if the evidence of the past few decades are any indication of the impact this election will have, then public political awareness will continue to decline.