Teaching Presidential Elections in a Divided Age

By Graham Holland
Middle school humanities
May 2016

GrahamThis is certainly shaping up to be an interesting election season. Just as Americans across the nation are trying to make sense of what seems to be an historic political realignment, history teachers are struggling to come up with the best way to talk about this election with their students, one that speaks to both the mechanisms of our democracy as well as the surprising and perhaps even alarming characteristics of this particular presidential campaign. This is no easy task.

I have been thinking about how to teach during presidential elections ever since Barack Obama was voted in to a second term in November of 2012, which was about the same time that my seventh grade history class was studying the American Revolution. As usual, I had a lovely group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds that year, but as the election neared I couldn’t help but notice that a certain toxicity had entered the classroom. Students who were otherwise good friends had taken to lobbing verbal bombs across the room at each other. Others had started making casual, unprompted pronouncements to the class about the positive qualities of one particular candidate and the America-destroying traits of the other. Worse still were the conspiratorial whispers and eye-rolls shared between like-minded neighbors whenever a classmate dared to utter an opposing view. For the most part, these students were echoing the views of their parents, which covered the entire spectrum from left to right. For every Obama t-shirt seen peeking out from behind an unbuttoned flannel, there was a Romney bumper sticker slapped across the front of a laptop. I found myself looking forward to election day the way voters in swing states must. Just as they know they will wake up the next morning to television programming that is blissfully free of political advertisements, I hoped that the tone in my classroom would return to normal as well. And that’s exactly what happened. On November 7th, the same students who had been eyeing one another suspiciously across the room happily shed their partisan cloaks and were friends once more. The atmosphere in the classroom was as polite and convivial as ever.

So, for the past three and a half years, I have found myself asking the same question: is there a creative, pedagogically sound, and developmentally appropriate way to address presidential elections with my students? With another one looming on the horizon, there is a temptation to pretend it’s not there. We could chart a course down the familiar path of American history, horse blinders shielding our gaze from the realities outside of the classroom. Any talk of politics could be quickly silenced. The election of 1816 would be fair game, but not the election of 2016. Tempting, but it feels like a bit of a cop-out. It’s certainly not the best way to nurture the critical thinking skills that our students will need to become the next generation of engaged citizens. Messy as it might be, the only real solution is to face the election head-on.

Americans of all political stripes frequently lament the absence of civil dialogue or genuine debate among the voting public. The term homophily is increasingly invoked to describe our tendency to seek out like-minded peers who will confirm what we already think. This trend has only accelerated in the age of social media, where we block out the things we don’t want to see and are increasingly fed the content that is most appealing to us. More and more Americans are even choosing to move to those regions of the country that most reflect their political leanings.  If we take it as a given that these are unhealthy trends in a vibrant democracy, then what role can we as educators play in interrupting them?

When planning curricular units, teachers often employ a strategy known as backward design in which they begin with the learning outcomes they want their students to achieve and then work backward to plan the lessons and experiences that will yield that result. So, what would backward design look like in this case? To imagine an end result, let’s fast forward to a time when these seventh graders are adults and assume that they will hold a wide range of political opinions. If we were to put them in a room together and encourage them to debate and discuss presidential electoral politics, what hopes would we have for the tone and character of that discussion? I, for one, would hope to see a vigorous debate in which even the sharpest disagreements could be expressed with civility and respect. I would want the participants in the discussion to be exceedingly well-informed about the issues, so that they could both support their own opinions and critique the opinions of their peers with evidence. While I might expect to see a range of firmly held beliefs, I would hope that the participants would also be open to new ideas, and that uncertainty, curiosity, and flexible thinking would be valued by the group. When the discussion ended, I would hope that the participants would leave with a better understanding of the issues and one another. Whatever their disagreements, I would want them to shake hands as friends and peers, content in the knowledge that they were participants in a vital and healthy democratic process.

If this idealized political discussion is the goal, then we must work backward to identify the set of knowledge, skills, and experiences that students need to achieve it. My vision for a “positively political” classroom starts with a set of understandings that I intend to share with my seventh graders early in the year. The first is an honest portrait of the state of political discourse today. I want to be transparent about my hopes and fears. I want to tell them how I felt four years ago, what I saw in the classroom, and the concerns I have for teaching this election. But more importantly, I want to invite them to join me in building an alternative.

I imagine saying something like this on the first day:

Seventh graders, we will be carving out time to talk about the presidential election, but here is my fear. I fear that this discussion will divide you from your peers, that you will shut down and close yourself off from the new ideas and opinions. I worry that we will begin the year in a way that will separate us right at the moment when we are first getting to know each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. This classroom space can be whatever we make it. I’d like it to be a place where we can talk politics with openness, honesty, and a sense of goodwill toward each other.

Let’s start with this. You are not a member of a political party. Your parents might be, but you are not. As a seventh grader your job is to learn as much as you can about the world and begin to form your own opinions about the issues of the day. You may find that your opinions line up with the platform of a particular political party or that they don’t. Neither is right or wrong. If your starting point is an identification with a political party, then you run the risk of letting other people do your thinking for you. Your positions are informed by the party’s position, not by your own experience and learning. The same is true of presidential candidates. If identification with the candidate is your starting point, then you allow that allegiance to define your position on issues instead of developing your own understanding of those issues and then seeking out a candidate who shares your views. Let’s also start with the assumption that you haven’t had enough life experience to develop an informed opinion on most issues. This is fine. No one expects you to have fully developed opinions, and that’s a good thing. It means you are still open to learning and growing. So, as we have these discussions, let’s celebrate our uncertainty and be skeptical of anyone who is too confident in his or her opinion. If someone says, “I don’t understand this issue well enough to have an informed opinion” then they should be applauded. There is great wisdom in this statement.

Our goal as a class is to create a safe, open environment in which we can discuss and debate issues respectfully. In order to do this we need to abide by certain rules. When you speak, use “I” statements. This is one of the foundations of good communication in any setting. If you state something as truth that may in fact be debatable, then you create the conditions for conflict with those who question that truth. If, on the other hand, you express ideas as a matter of what you feel or believe, your statements become much harder to contradict, and you create an opening for others to share what they feel or believe. As you express an opinion, try to imagine that someone in the room, a person whom you consider a good friend, has the opposite opinion. Try to express yourself in a way that clearly articulates your feelings while preserving the positive feelings that you and that classmate share toward each other. Even if you are quite confident that what you have to say is true, consider using these phrases to convey a sense of humbleness and openness:

It seems to me…

It is my understanding that…

My sense is…

In my experience…

Rather than shutting people down, these phrases are invitations to further conversation. A classmate might respond by saying I have a different understanding or my experience with that issue is different.

This is a history class and one of the most important skills you will practice this year is how to find and use valid sources of information. Similarly, you will learn to critically examine sources for bias and accuracy. This skill will be essential to our ability to have informed political discussions. If you want to express an opinion, please know that it will carry much more weight if it is backed up by a credible source. If you can point to an news article or share a link with the class, they will be much more likely to take your point seriously. Saying, “I heard…” or “My uncle told me…” doesn’t have quite the same effect.

As we engage in these discussions, things are bound to get messy from time to time. You might find that you disagree strongly with someone you care about. You might experience the discomfort that comes when you begin to question long-held assumptions. Don’t let any of this stop you from participating fully in the experience. If we can learn and grow together, challenge each other, and really wrestle with the issues of our time together, all while maintaining a sense of goodwill and respect for one another, then we will have accomplished a great deal.

Where to go from there? This spring, I experimented with this a bit with my current class and was encouraged by the results. We started with a journal exercise in which the students were prompted to write a description of their ideal presidential candidate. What characteristics or personality traits would he or she have? What background or experience? The students wrote their responses on a shared Google doc which I projected on the board while they were writing. When they were finished I asked the students to read over each other’s responses. I asked them to share aloud if they saw something in a classmate’s response that they connected with or that made sense to them. I then gave the students a chance to ask each other clarifying questions. What did you mean when you said that the president should have a good background? Why do you think it’s important that he or she has held elected office before? While there were a couple of jokes thrown in about the current presidential candidates, the students were quite thoughtful and reflective during this exercise. In many cases I was struck by the depth of their responses:

They wouldn’t be extreme, but rather someone who is interested in compromise.

I would want this world leader to be a veteran of the military, which suggests they’ve seen the horrors of war and will be careful when declaring war upon others.

I would hope that they would come from a low income family so that they understand the struggles of much of the population.

This exercise felt like a good starting point. It provided a chance for students to begin laying the foundations of what I hope will one day be a thoughtfully constructed and fully realized belief system. With enough class time, I imagine that we could work through many of the issues facing our country today. What limits, if any, should be placed on the people’s right to keep and bear arms? What should the immigration policy of the United States look like? What role should the government play in providing healthcare to its citizens? These are weighty topics for seventh graders, but there is great value in beginning to wrestle with them and in developing an understanding of the wide range of perspectives on each issue.

How much of this work can really happen in the first few months of school? Without scrapping the rest of my curriculum entirely, probably not a lot. But is it worth at least making the attempt?

Will the experience impact my students in a meaningful and lasting way? I truly hope so. In a time of such partisan rancor, when our intractable differences render us incapable of confronting the challenges before us, a hopeful outlook might feel like a luxury. But, it is in the very nature of teaching to see in our students the promise of the next generation. So, while teaching during this election season may seem like a burden, perhaps it is an opportunity.  

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