Social studies teachers have long used presidential elections to provide engaging, real-time lessons about democracy, helping them bring to life what students read in textbooks about American politics, history and civics.
But this election cycle, unique in so many ways, also has proven to be a dicey challenge for classroom consumption, with teachers struggling to explain and dissect developments that have at times been far too lurid for young minds. Just the language of the campaign — including allegations of sexual assault, lewd comments about women, attacks on each candidate’s supporters — would be the kind of talk that would land a child in the principal’s office.
“This is the first time I’ve really said to myself, ‘I can’t cover this election like I want to because it’s not school-appropriate,’ ” said Kris Goldstein, who teaches government to seniors at Tokay High School in Lodi, Calif. It was a realization he had after Republican nominee Donald Trump attacked a critic by urging people to watch her sex tape. “There’s certain things I don’t want to be talking about.”
Many teachers say they have shifted their lesson plans to keep things G-rated and to ease anxiety among minority and immigrant students, some of whom feel like they are in the line of fire. Some teachers have avoided classroom discussion of the election altogether; others say their students are too captivated to avoid it.
They want to assign students to watch the third presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday night, but they also fear what their students may see and hear.
During the most recent presidential debate, audience member Patrice Brock noted that much of the back-and-forth could be rated for “mature audiences,” and she asked Trump and Hillary Clinton whether they feel they’re “modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth,” noting that some teachers assign the debates as homework.
Brock, 42, of Eureka, Mo., said in an interview that her question arose from concern for her nieces — ages 12 and 15 — who have been watching the debates. Brock said she thinks those who seek public office should be role models for young children, but the acrimonious tone and lack of manners in the first presidential debate disturbed her.
“I want our kids to think that our president is cool — and that they’re good,” Brock said.
At Burgundy Farm Country Day in Alexandria, Va., Scout Osborne, who teaches a class of fourth- and fifth-graders, asked students to watch 15 minutes of the debate with their families as homework. She also told parents that they could screen the debate ahead of time and pick which 15 minutes students would watch to avoid inappropriate topics.
The election has proven deeply polarizing among her young students, who started the school year bickering about politics in the classroom. She decided to turn the election into an extended lesson on how to “argue respectfully,” including listening to classmates without interrupting and not raising their voices. The presidential debates have provided important teaching moments — but not in the way she would have hoped.
After the first presidential debate, her students noticed that the candidates regularly interrupted each other, Osborne said: “They picked up pretty quickly that’s not how we would do things in our classroom.”
And some teachers say the lack of substance in the presidential campaign has been frustrating.
Goldstein, in California, asked his students to watch the debate, identify four policy issues and then write each candidate’s stance on them. Several students found they couldn’t complete the assignment, and Goldstein couldn’t blame them: He found that there wasn’t much national policy to analyze.
Many civics teachers remain nonpartisan in the classroom and urge their students to do their own research and exploration to develop their views. But now they also have to underscore that children should not necessarily emulate — or even repeat the talking points — of certain candidates. Teachers have cautioned their students against speaking disrespectfully about any group, whether it be emulating Trump by calling Mexicans “rapists” and drug dealers, or parroting Clinton, who called some Trump supporters “deplorables.”
“The challenge that this election has presented is that sometimes the things that are said during the course of the campaign occasionally will conflict with how I like my students to conduct themselves in class, especially with regards to treating each other respectfully,” said Michael Palermo, who teaches government at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va. “If you’re going to express your views in class, you have to do so in way that is respectful of your classmates and doesn’t demean any individual or any group.”
In a post on his blog, where he gave tips for how to teach the election, Palermo said he would still treat a student chanting “Build a wall!” at a group of Hispanic students as bullying, even though it has become a regular chorus at Trump rallies.
“Just because it’s part of the political discourse now doesn’t make it any more acceptable,” Palermo said.
Teachers cite Trump’s stances on immigration as raising anxiety among immigrant students who fear they could be deported should he be elected president, and Palermo said what they’re hearing related to the election is “trauma-inducing” to some students. It was such a concern among teachers in Arlington — an overwhelmingly Democratic stronghold with a growing population of immigrant students — that the school system organized a professional development session on how to help teachers whose students might be unsettled.
Teachers aiming to elevate the conversation and to focus on the issues are grappling, too, with whether to address comments by the Republican nominee captured in a leaked videotape in which he spoke of groping women.
Shannon Geraghty, a teacher at Forest Park High in Woodbridge, Va., said she picked up a copy of the New York Daily News the day after the scandal broke and noted that the tabloid’s headline — “GRAB THEM BY THE P---Y,” with images of cats filling the space between the ‘P’ and the ‘Y’ — might be off-limits for the classroom.
“When I couldn’t even bring in the newspaper to show my students, that’s just a different level, a different low,” Geraghty said.
Presidential politics has at times been too prurient for the classroom, but rarely during a campaign. Palermo started his teaching career just as the news of President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern was unfolding. He found it difficult to ignore in class when Clinton faced impeachment, but he said he managed to avoid the racier aspects of the story, instead focusing on the mechanics of impeaching a president.
For other teachers, the election has proved too polarizing and too juvenile for them to turn it into an educational lesson. Mary Akeley, a fifth-grade teacher at Burgundy Farms Country Day, decided to shift from contemporaneous elections and instead focus on elections in the Iroquois nation.
Although Burgundy Farms had a schoolwide mock election in 2012, some classes are avoiding talk about the candidates this time, Akeley said. Instead, a mock election in her classroom will feature three other well-known figures: suffragette Susan B. Anthony, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
And although the election has proven a challenging topic, some teachers admit its unusual nature has had a positive side effect: Students are enthralled in ways teachers have never seen. Geraghty said one student hosted a debate-watching party for his classmates; another came to school early after the first debate, eager to dissect it with her. Osborne said even her most shy students have come out of the woodwork to share their views.
Goldstein said he thinks an educated citizenry is central to a functioning democracy, but he wishes there were a more civil presidential campaign on which to model it.
“It’s not what I would want them to see from our political process, honestly,” Goldstein said. “But it is captivating their attention.”