Teachers are finding themselves in new territory as they try to bring the increasingly contentious presidential election into the classroom.
In Novembers past, teachers in the Seattle area and across the nation would seize on the presidential election as a way to make lessons on politics and government more exciting.
This year, with debates about the budget and trade giving way to email scandals and accusations of sexual assault, they’re struggling with how to best teach about this contest —or even whether to mention it.
At Shorecrest High in Shoreline, for example, teacher Brett Vlahovich decided to keep his lessons focused on topics like the Electoral College and the difference between a swing state and a red or blue one. But his students, who are just a year or two away from voting age, often bring up the divisive language used by the candidates anyway.
He finds it hard to moderate discussions with students who feel discriminated against by Donald Trump’s campaign and those whose parents support that candidate.
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It’s a very fine line to walk, he said.
“We have a very diverse student population, and we value free speech, but it becomes, ‘What level of free speech do we want to have?’ ” Vlahovich said. “How do we discuss these ideas and not imitate that volatile nature between [Hillary] Clinton and Trump at the debates?”
Eric Behrens, a fourth-grade teacher at Panther Lake Elementary in Kent, said he also worries about the election’s effect on his students.
“It’s really uncomfortable seeing what is going on,” Behrens said. “It kind of justifies acting the fool, yelling back, ‘No, you’re lying.’ When you see a particular candidate snapping at people and interrupting, it’s worrisome.”
Many teachers share Vlahovich and Behrens’ concerns. Nearly half the 2,000 teachers surveyed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project said they were hesitant to teach about this particular election. And more than half said they had seen an increase in uncivil political discourse in their classes.
Teaching Tolerance used the phrase the “Trump Effect” to describe the impact Trump’s campaign has had on students of color.
In Behrens’ classroom, for example, one student said during a discussion that she was afraid of Trump and what would happen to her family if he were elected.
“Another student said, ‘Well, that’s only for people who are here illegally,’ ” Behrens said. “I realized that they probably are here undocumented, but I didn’t want to interject that. I had to tiptoe around it.”
He asked the second student, “If she were here undocumented, would you want to send her back? Why?”
“I wanted to make him realize there are real people who are, quote unquote, ‘here illegally,’ ” Behrens said.
He’s also had to navigate other uncomfortable questions about some of the candidates’ statements.
“Kids ask, ‘What does this word mean that I hear Trump talking about?’ ” Behrens said.
In some schools, teachers have found new ways to make this election into a proverbial “teachable moment.”
In Lynden, Whatcom County, for example, where Trump held a rally in May, the high school’s English department is using the election to introduce the idea of rhetoric, said teacher Jordan Vanderveen. Students in every grade level are learning about rhetorical devices and their impact on audiences.
So instead of avoiding talking about the debates, teachers have assigned students to watch them, and then analyze how the candidates use language to shape their message.
At Bellevue’s Newport High, seniors in Lane Lopus’ classroom are holding a mock election, with students running campaigns inspired by Trump, Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz.
The candidates are given fake names, to separate them from the real people. One classroom wall is covered in campaign posters and developments, with each candidate’s opinion-poll standings and media articles.
But though their platforms mirror the candidates, there are no references to real-life scandals. Lopus gives each candidate a mock scandal, though, to help students analyze how candidates deal with them.
During the first week of school, Lopus had students sit on a specific side of the classroom based on their political ideology. That showed both groups of students that they aren’t alone.
“I have only a handful of conservatives in each class, so spending time sitting together was a really good experience,” Lopus said. “I have one girl who is running as what she hopes Trump would be, and she’s doing a phenomenal job.”
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During a recent third-period class at Newport, students suggested questions for a class discussion. One student proposed a leading question on how the public could trust Clinton. Lopus made the question more broad, changing it to, “How do we vote for candidates with low levels of trust?”
In general, teachers are expected to remain politically neutral when talking about current events with students. And that’s what most teachers are doing this year, too.
But this election is making a few decide they can’t stay silent about their views.
One of them is Seattle teacher Lyon Terry, who was the state’s teacher of the year for 2015.
This month, Terry lent his support to a letter penned by 10 other former state and national Teachers of the Year that explained why they aren’t supporting Trump.
“His words and actions have shown a consistent disdain for human dignity,” they wrote. “His behavior goes against everything we teach the children in our care.”
Terry said his opposition to Trump centers on the way Trump treats people.
“When you have somebody acting like a bully, with unfair characterizations of people, when you look at all those examples of how he treats women and the way he has talked about people of color, I think that is a big issue,” Terry said. “I can’t morally vote for someone like that.”
University of Washington professor Walter Parker, who specializes in social-studies education, said he’s heard about many teachers who are struggling with this year’s election.
But he also counsels that teachers shouldn’t shy away from it.
His advice: “Teach the facts, teach what the Electoral College is, teach the debate over the Electoral College … go all the way back and teach the Constitution. There’s so much knowledge that needs to be taught.”