Teaching Election 2016 Part 1: What Should I Do In My Classroom?

Close-up of the back of the White House.
Close-up of the back of the White House.

As teachers prepare to return to the classroom this fall, especially social studies teachers, they face a serious problem. How do you teach about the presidential election in a responsible way when you know that one of the major party candidates makes statements that are biased, incendiary, insulting, and so out-and-out false that many members of his own party refuse to support his candidacy?

A Teaching Tolerance online survey of 2,000 K-12 teachers reported raising racial and ethnic tension and bullying in classrooms and schools as Trump supporters feel "emboldened" to use slurs or engage in hostile chants ("Build the Wall"). A high school teacher from New Hampshire wrote, "A lot of students think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with. They also think that all Muslims are the same and are a threat to our country and way of life." A second-grade teacher from Virginia said her Hispanic students are "scared of being sent back to their home countries. They're scared of losing their education." An elementary teacher from Oklahoma reported "My kids are terrified of Trump becoming [p]resident. They believe he can/will deport them--and NONE of them are Hispanic. They are all African American." One Indianapolis, Indiana, teacher, finding the conditions intolerable, wrote on the survey, "I am at a point where I'm going to take a stand even if it costs me my position."

I wish I had an easy answer to what is taking place - but I don't.

In this blog and future posts I will explore some options for teachers. I hope other teachers chime in with their ideas. We all need to help each other. If people email me at catajs@hofstra.edu I will assemble your ideas into a follow-up post.

An article in the New York Times this summer by Jim Rutenberg, "Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism," raised similar problems faced by news reporters. Rutenberg asked "If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?"

Rutenberg concluded, "It may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump or his supporters. But journalism shouldn't measure itself against any one campaign's definition of fairness. It is journalism's job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history's judgment. To do anything less would be untenable."

I think this is also good advice for teachers. Our obligation is not to maintain some abstract form of "balance" in the classroom, but to to help students become critical thinkers who learn to listen to others, evaluate their statements carefully and respectfully, and support conclusions with evidence. If one of the candidates and his or her supporters are shown to be lacking by this standard, that is the fault of the candidate, not of the teacher.

This entire unit takes about two weeks and involves students in a considerable amount of research, writing, and discussion. It is definitely appropriate for middle and high school United States history and government classes. In grades where students study other social studies topics it can be adapted for English classes where students are encouraged to read and evaluate non-fiction material.

I stress with students on all levels that an election is not a sporting event - it has very serious consequences for individuals, the nation, and the world. We are analyzing candidates as citizens, historians, and social scientists, not rooting for our favorite team.

At each point in the unit, perhaps as a daily closing activity, challenge students to develop and discuss questions they would ask candidates based on the day's lesson. They should also explain why they want to ask these specific questions. Homework can focus on fact-checking speeches, press conferences, press releases, and campaign websites. The New York Times runs a very useful online fact check page. Other fact-checking sites are FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. In class discussions we would identify criteria for evaluating candidate claims, especially the type of supporting evidence we expect.

Here is a unit outline with lesson aim questions. These are possibilities for topics and sequence and are certainly not set in stone. Student presentations on who they support for President are held at the end of the unit after candidate positions and other issues are carefully evaluated.

1. What are the major issues confronting the United States and the world today? Distribute newspapers and have student teams identify five headlines from national or world news that point to major areas of concern. Teams list their headlines on large poster paper and explain their selections to the class. As closure, discuss similarities and differences in the areas the teams chose and try to arrive at consensus on the most glaring issues.

2. What are the constitutional powers and responsibilities of the President? Building on the previous lesson, turn to a discussion of the Presidency. This lesson could open with student statements of their views of the presidency, include an examination of Article II of the United States Constitution where it discusses the executive branch of government, and evaluate statements by past Presidents on how they view or viewed the presidency. Infoplease.com has a compilation of Presidential quotes that is useful. This is also good lesson for political cartoon analysis.

3. What constitutional and political limitations are placed on the President? This lesson starts with separation of powers but primarily focuses on political limits, especially when the nation is divided and the legislative branch is controlled by an opposition party. Students can examine FDR's conflict with a very conservative Supreme Court that threatened to overturn the New Deal or the continuing battle over the Affordable Care Act. During his Presidency, Barack Obama moved from a relative limited view of presidential power to become an active proponent of executive authority.

4. What qualities do voters look for in a President? As a do now activity, students can read excerpts from a 1983 New York Times article discussing voter views on the qualities of an ideal President. Gallup and Pew polls often ask voters about the qualities they look for in a Presidential candidate. Poll the class and compare student responses with national polls. This is an excellent lesson to include chart and graph analysis.

5. How does the United States elect a President? This lesson looks at Blue, Red, and battleground states. It explores the mysteries of the Electoral College, why there are actually 51 different elections taking place (one in each state and Washington DC), and why only a handful of swing states (Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin) are contested and actually decide the election.

6. How does the media shape elections? Media bias is always raised by one candidate or one party or the other as a reason for trailing in the polls or losing elections. In this lesson students examine print and television coverage for potential bias. Students can examine excerpts from the Rutenberg article in the New York Times. FoxNews is a hot point here, both because they are often accused of rightwing bias and because they regularly accuse other media outlets of liberal bias.

7. What role do Third Parties play in American politics? At least two "Third Parties" have launched major alternative Presidential campaigns this election cycle. The Libertarian Party candidate is Gary Johnson, former Republican Governor of New Mexico. The Green Party candidate is Jill Stein, a physician and environmental activist. Both Johnson and Stein are demanding to be included in this year's Presidential debates.

Third Party candidates are sometimes accused of being spoilers (1948, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, and 2000) by drawing votes away from a major party candidate and influencing who is elected. This lesson should look at the platforms of the Libertarian and Green Parties and explore the history of Third Parties in the United States. In the 1850s the Republican Party moved from being a Third Party to one of the two major parties. Populist and Socialist Party platform positions from the 1890 to 1920 period later became part of the Democratic Party's New Deal and Great Society programs.

8. Voter Discontent: What are the roots of the Trump and Sanders campaigns? A Los Angles Times article, nearly a year old now, discussed how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders drew on similar populist discontent with the state of American society, especially the economy. A Pew poll revealed widespread dissatisfaction with government and conditions in the United States, although Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders primary campaign supporters had clearly different views on possible solutions. Insidegov.com examines similarities and differences in their appeal and platforms. This lesson revisits the major issues identified in lesson 1 and why Americans are so divided on paths for the future.

9. How will changing demographics influence election results? This is another chart, graph, and map heavy lesson. Ethnicity, gender, and social class have historically had a deep impact on Presidential voting patterns. A majority of White men have been voting Republican in national elections since 1948. White women, African Americans, immigrants, and Latinos majorities generally vote Democrat and these groups are largely in the Clinton camp today. In 2012, Mitt Romney was caught on video saying that 47% of the electorate would never vote for him or other Republicans candidates because of how they identified themselves. Demographic change led to a switch from a Republican majority to a Democrat majority from 1928 to 1932 as more new immigrants became citizens and they and their American born children were eligible to vote. The Pew Research Center and the webpage FiveThirtyEight have great demographic material.

10. Who do you support for President and why? Students come prepared to represent their preferred candidate with home-made buttons, shirts, posters, flyers, and statements. They can meet in candidate caucuses before we start presentations and discussion. There are three rules. Everyone is respectful of others. Everyone gets to speak. It is okay to present why you remain undecided. After student views are presented there should be general cross-questioning and discussion. I have no problem if as part of the discussion a teacher shares their personal views on the candidates.

Will election 2016 mark a transformation of American politics? Some elections signal major changes in how Americans view their country. Other elections are votes to continue or reject policies of a predecessor President. This will be the subject of a future post.

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