Some Teachers Hesitant to Talk About Clinton, Trump in the Classroom

By Madeline Will — August 25, 2016 4 min read
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As teachers head back to the classroom, many are wondering, “How the heck am I going to talk to my students about this election?”

There hasn’t been a presidential campaign quite like this one before. There are a lot of firsts: the first time a major-party nominee has no public-affairs experience, the first time a woman is the nominee for a major party. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s rhetoric is not the typical, polished politican-speak—instead, it’s off-the-cuff, controversial, and for many, offensive. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is also, for many, a polarizing figure, with the majority of voters in a New York Times survey saying they don’t trust her.

An April report from Teaching Tolerance, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center, surveyed 2,000 teachers about the election and found that 40 percent were reluctant to teach about the campaign, citing concerns about inflaming racial and ethnic tensions. A recent Fast Company article looked at this phenomenon and found that some teachers have been prohibited by administrators from discussing the election, and others are fielding parental complaints on political lessons.

“Teachers right now are afraid to teach the election,” Louise Dubé, the executive director of the nonprofit iCivics, told Fast Company. “An election is part of a democratic process, it shouldn’t be something scary.”

But the past few weeks have brought headlines like “Teaching Trump: Rethinking Civic Education in Turbulent Times” and “How Do You Talk to Students About ‘Character’ When Donald Keeps Rewriting the Rules?,” along with many other news stories about how teachers can navigate a “polarizing” election year.

Still, some educators are excited about all the discussions and pedagogical connections that can be made from this election. The New York Times’ teaching and learning blog recently issued a call for readers to share how they’re planning to teach the elections. Some thoughtful comments included:

  • From Annette Yono: “The current presidential election magnifies the significance of teaching our children to be critical thinkers. Even our youngest students need to begin to differentiate between fact and opinion, discuss and learn to identify an author’s viewpoints, and [analyze] an argument. Students need to learn how to examine media from various sources and determine their credibility.”
  • From Francie, who teaches 12th grade: “Our discussion will focus more on why a nontraditional candidate like Trump appeals to people (which is a mystery to most in this area) than why people think he’s unfit to be president (which the vast majority of people in this community believe).”
  • From Lbbizzy, who teaches 3rd grade: “It is a teachable moment in which the children can learn that sometimes people must agree to disagree. Hopefully, they will begin to understand that just because people sometimes make bad choices about what they say or have done, it does not make them bad human beings.”

Education Week correspondent Lisa Stark recently reported from a Maryland school on how a teacher was holding lively debates with students about the election and fostering critical analysis.

And the Green Bay Press-Gazette recently profiled one social studies teacher, Jeff Kline, who said this election is great to get students excited about civics, social studies, and history.

“There’s populism with Donald Trump, who has never had political office, which we really haven’t seen since the late 1800s,” he told the paper. “There’s really movement behind him. The whole idea of globalism vs. isolationism, raising tariffs, there’s a lot of ways to link history with what is happening in this election cycle.”

Online resources are available on how to approach this election in the classroom. The group Justice in Schools has developed a teaching guide and case study for teachers to start nuanced conversations with their students on “important pedagogical, ethical, democratic, legal, and political considerations.” Scholastic has also compiled some information on the election for younger children. Newseum ED also has a collection of resources for teachers who feel “stumped” on how to teach the controversy this election cycle.

Teachers, how are you planning on teaching the election? Share your thoughts and plans in the comments.

Image source: Hillary Clinton, by Susan Walsh/AP; Donald Trump, by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.