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Civics in Uncivil Times

Facing down the challenges of teaching the 2016 election, with resources for preparing engaged citizens
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In a chaotic and hostile election season — rupturing political parties, incessant name-calling, and growing dissention along racial and class lines — it may be tempting for educators to discourage political talk at school.

But as the school year takes off and the election draws nearer, rejecting political conversations in the classroom will likely be impossible — and unwise, according to educators we interviewed. “No matter what students grow up to do with their lives, they all have civic rights and responsibilities, so they need to be prepared,” says political philosopher Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Educators have a responsibility to discuss these current events so that their students can become informed and active citizens.

Still, the 2016 election, fraught with divisive language and widespread dislike of both candidates, is tricky. For civics educators, talking about the election may require a different approach than they’ve taken in previous years.

From a Student’s Point of View

  • Students may be more invested in this election than they usually are in politics. While teaching a U.S. history class on presidential elections this summer, Rebecca Park found that her students arrived with strong opinions already formed about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. “Something that has generally seemed distant and irrelevant to their own lives suddenly feels very personal,” says Park, a member of the first cohort of Harvard Teaching Fellows.
  • But that interest doesn’t necessarily mean that students are well-informed about the candidates, their policies, or the more intricate workings of presidential campaigns. While co-teaching with Park this summer, Chelsea High School instructional coach and mentor Sam Baker noticed that students often had very few facts to back up their opinions about candidates, or were relying on friends and family members to inform their views.
  • Students may have very strong emotional reactions to what the candidates are saying and doing. The rhetoric surrounding immigration, mass shootings, and police brutality may make students uncomfortable, angry, or scared, and they may bring those emotions into the classroom. 
  • This campaign's rhetoric may be especially difficult to confront in a school setting. Says Levinson, “Many of Trump’s statements seem to violate moral and civic norms that schools are committed to teaching: anti-racism, respect for others, democratic ideals, and anti-bullying.” While all elections include strong opinions and stinging debates, many educators have said that Trump’s comments have contained ideas that make it difficult for teachers to ask students to host a mock debate.

For social studies teachers, then, the 2016 election becomes a quandary. How to address the election in an authentic, sensitive, objective, and meaningful way?

A Case Study Explores the Issues

Levinson has developed a case study called “Holding the Trump Card: How Should Schools Address Controversial Issues in the 2016 Presidential Election?” The case is designed for teachers and school leaders, as well as for parents and for middle and high school students themselves, to encourage nuanced conversations about the many pedagogical, ethical, and civic issues at play. It comes with a teaching guide that helps educators explore how best to use it in the classroom and in professional development settings. 

Resources and Advice for the Classroom

In a divisive climate, it may be difficult for educators to remain neutral during class discussions. And there’s been a lot of debate this election season as to whether neutrality, if feasible, is the right goal. But some of those debates may offer an either/or scenario that’s too rigid. As Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy explain in The Political Classroom, classrooms can be “political sites” without being partisan ones. Civics educators should aspire to lead students in learning exercises that focus on the question, “How should we live together?” The goal is to prepare students with the skills they need to be engaged citizens in a democracy.

Baker and Park’s approach centered on giving both candidates and parties equal airtime, and on presenting clear descriptions of how different political parties view the role of government.

Instead of critiquing a specific candidate’s policies, they suggest helping students reach their own conclusions by perusing and analyzing both candidates’ websites. “Talk about what it means if one side has policies and the other has platitudes, or what means if you can’t find anything from a candidate about an important issue,” suggests Baker.

Baker and Park also worked to distinguish the candidates from their supporters. Educators can incorporate lessons on why people across the United States develop views and make political choices. It’s okay for students to hold strongly negative views on a candidate, but it’s also important that they recognize what about the current state of United States make that candidate’s beliefs and demeanor attractive to a large number of people.

“I think we don’t have to validate or accept the really divisive, disrespectful words that we hear from candidates or campaigns,” says Kelly Sherwin, an eighth grade social studies teacher at an independent school in Cleveland. “[Instead,] we can analyze why certain people in certain areas of the country or with certain backgrounds feel compelled to speak out on behalf of those candidates. What are the issues that are important to them? How does fear play into all this? I’m more interested in identifying and analyzing patterns of behaviors on either side, and what conclusions can we draw from that, and whether we can make some predictions or suggestions for future leaders.”

Because racially charged statements may be upsetting, particularly to Latino and Muslim young people, it’s also important to allow space for students to express their reactions. Teachers can set aside time for students to verbally share how they’re feeling, or ask students to do quick-writes explaining their emotional responses.

Along the same lines, educators can consider adjusting assignments based on the needs and particular makeup of their classes. While all students should engage with both sides of the debate, teachers can still structure lessons in a sensitive manner. Baker and Park had originally planned for their students, almost all of whom are Latino, to write creative essays explaining as campaign strategists how both Trump and Clinton could win, but they decided to change the assignment to make it less personal.

The good news about this election? Students are interested and invested in the outcome. Teachers can use this political season to reinforce how presidential elections can have a profound impact on students’ lives, instilling the importance of remaining informed and engaged. “I’m not so compelled to talk about the candidates themselves, because so much of what we’re hearing has nothing to do with the issues that affect people’s lives.,” says Sherwin. “We’re going to try to steer it toward the actual election process, and trying to learn about some of the issues, the democratic platform, the republican platform, in general.”

For every educator, regardless of the subject she teaches, this election is bound to come in class. Baker suggests that non-social studies teachers use this election as “an important lesson in the power of words.” English teachers especially can use candidates’ speeches, policy briefs, and social media accounts to talk about language, rhetoric, and intended audience with students.

Additional Resources


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