When fifth-graders at a Maryland elementary school started an election project this fall, they expected it to last through Tuesday’s presidential vote. But as the language and tone of the presidential campaign grew more disturbing, school leaders pulled the plug in October.
A number of parents at Pine Crest Elementary School in Silver Spring have questioned and lamented the decision to halt the project, saying their children were learning a lot. They wanted the 10-year-olds to stick with the election, flaws and all.
“We thought this project was a terrific real-time civics lesson, and students this age are certainly aware it’s going on,” said parent Sophie Richardson, who was disappointed the project was abandoned. “To say, ‘Oh, now children, avert your gaze,’ did not seem realistic.”
The scrapped assignment comes as a casualty of a presidential campaign season that has posed dilemmas for educators across the country with its talk of sexual assault, name-calling and adult themes. Some administrators and teachers nationally have tried not to discuss the election at all.
The “Campaign Journal” project at Pine Crest — assigned to fifth-grade students in the school’s highly gifted program — included reading news stories, creating a glossary of campaign terms, analyzing advertising, writing an essay and tracking election results.
It was canceled just hours before the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, which came after the release of a recording of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump making comments in 2005 about kissing and groping women.
“Due to the most recent developments with the 2016 Presidential Elections . . . we have made a decision that it would be in the best interest of our students to terminate the Campaign Journal Project and all related assignments,” principal Cheryl Booker wrote in an email to families.
Booker referred interview requests to school district officials.
“It was becoming more and more toxic, and for our youngest learners we made a call that we’ve achieved our goal with this assignment and we’re going to move on,” said Maria Navarro, chief academic officer for Montgomery County’s public schools. Navarro said older students in the 159,000-student district continued to study the contest between Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Pine Crest fifth-grader Kate Gray wrote to the principal saying that although she understood how Trump’s remarks could put the administrator in a tough spot, students could handle it.
“Fifth-graders have at least 10 years of wisdom and knowledge in them, and deserve to know and understand what’s happening in the real world,” she wrote, saying that the articles she had read showed the election was “like no other election that’s ever happened.”
“I’ve learned so much from this project,” she said, “that personally, it seems cruel to simply cut it short.”
Montgomery school officials said a handful of parents at Pine Crest complained about the project but the decision to cancel was not spurred by those objections. Instead, the decision to stop came because of the changing dynamic of the campaign. “Because of the explicit sexual nature of it, there was concern,” said Derek Turner, a school system spokesman.
Like other parents, Kate Lang said she understood the instinct to protect children from crude sexual references. But she said she wishes the district had sought parent involvement and that she thought the project could have been helpful in prompting important conversations, such as how to disagree with someone without attacking them.
“I understand it was challenging for them, but I think rather than walking away from the whole thing they could have taken the opportunity to change things up,” Lang said.
Parents also voiced confidence in the experienced teachers leading the assignment, saying they believe the educators would have been able to help students navigate any sensitive areas.
“It was a lost opportunity, not only to talk about the election but to discuss the fact that the things you say or do follow you throughout your life,” said parent Susan Marsiglia Gray. “I think that’s a good discussion for kids who are about to hit middle school.”
Heather Satrom, another parent, said that after the Trump video surfaced she thought students might need more help in selecting articles to analyze but said that “kids don’t live in caves.”
“They’re exposed to the media whether we like it or not,” she said, noting that the election is not the first tough subject the students have navigated. “We live in a world where terrorism happens, where police violence happens, where shootings happen, and we have to figure out a way to talk about it.”
Satrom said the project had really sparked her fifth-grader’s interest. He was looking at news stories regularly, watching debates and asking lots of questions.
Looking back, 10-year-old Ian Satrom recounted that he was “a little mad” at having to give up the project. “It was very fun,” he said.