Teachers use nasty election to spark polite student debate
WASHINGTON — From mock elections to writing projects and Electoral College math, many teachers around the country are embracing the often nasty presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as a real-world teaching tool.
Muslims. Taxes. The wall. Emails. The negative exchanges. They’re all up for discussion in Halie Miller’s fourth-grade class at Glacier Ridge Elementary in Dublin, Ohio. But when the students hold their own debates, they’re polite and respectful.
“We kind of have debates and never yell at each other,” says 9-year-old Mia Dahi. “We give our opinions and what we think about it, but we don’t really fight about it.”
The election provides material for other subjects beyond social studies. In math, Miller’s students have learned about the magic of the number 270, using addition and subtraction to come up with different combinations to get to 270 electoral votes to claim victory.
“Educating students about their role in a democracy was one of the original goals of public education in this country and it should remain so today, as our nation becomes more and more diverse,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in recent remarks at the National Press Club.
This election no doubt has presented challenges for educators, with difficult topics such as sexual assault, infidelity and just the general bitterness and angry rhetoric.
“Teachers all over the country are having some very hard conversations with their students in a non-partisan way,” says National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen GarcÌa.
It’s also opened the door, though, to some good debates. “They’re having discussions about race. They’re having discussions about religious freedom,” she said. “They’re having discussions about should girls aspire to be president as likely as a boy would aspire to be president.”
Alice Reilly, president of the National Social Studies Supervisors Association, says teachers can’t ignore the election.
“It’s part of social studies. It’s part of civics. It’s part of government,” she said.
Teachers Sara Winter and Patricia Carlson at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, turned the election into a five-week THINK-TAC-TOE project for their sixth graders, who are required to complete three of nine activity squares on their worksheets.
–Analyze a newspaper article on the election and write two to three paragraphs about it.
–Take a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood, tally Clinton and Trump yard signs and write two to three paragraphs about why the student thinks people in the community might support one candidate over the other.
–Interview five people about who they are voting for and write about why they support a particular candidate.
In Denver, social studies teacher Aaron Stites says the tone of the campaign can at times be discouraging.
“You can get bogged down by the negativity, but to see kids excited about the election and kids feeling they have a voice, it gives me a boost,” Stites said in an interview. “Any time kids in your classroom are engaged and don’t want to leave class, that’s a good feeling.”
Stites, a teacher at the Bryant-Webster Dual Language School, says immigration is the issue his seventh- and eighth-grade students have the most questions about. The school has a diverse population and some kids, he says, have asked him, “Mr. Stites, if Trump is elected, what does that mean for us, and how much power does a president really have?”
There are questions about Clinton, too. Stites says his students have discussed her emails and whether they think she’s good at securing classified information. “They want to read and find out more about the candidates,” says Stites.
Back in Miller’s class outside Columbus, students read about the campaign in Scholastic News.
Miller says one student asked what a Muslim was, and why Trump wanted a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. So, Miller turned to the children’s book “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors,” to discuss Muslim culture with her class. Another child said the Islamic State group and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had something to do with the ban, and the students then discussed whether they thought that was fair.
“They hear things at home or on the news and they just need someone to help connect the dots,” Miller said in an interview. “I’m trying to focus more on the positives.”
The fourth grade at Miller’s school also is participating in a mock election. Sriram Katta says he still doesn’t know how he’ll vote. “I want to hear about who’s going to do something about health care and who’s going to do something about taxes,” said Katta.
Audrey Di Cesare also doesn’t have a favorite. “I really don’t have somebody to vote for because I don’t want Hillary to raise taxes and I don’t want Trump to build a wall or ban Muslims and immigrants because it’s America and we should unite.”