Generally, during an election year, my middle-schoolers research candidates, produce political commercials, craft editorials, create newscasts, take part in mock elections, speak on behalf of “their” candidates, conduct polls, build their own political parties and platforms, interview family members about their political views, and pretty much immerse themselves in the entire political process.
It’s an exhausting, yet exhilarating interdisciplinary learning experience for all of us. And I usually love almost everything about it. But not this school year.
This year I’ve yet to delve into the topic of the presidential elections.
I spend so much time teaching my adolescents to be respectful, thoughtful, tolerant, and compassionate young adults —How can I invite them to study and role-play presidential candidates when this season’s actual debates and interviews so often devolve into unsavory, verbal brawls?
Back in the 80’s, my students tittered about Ronald Reagan’s colon cancer and talk of his hemorrhoids and polyps. In the late 90’s, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky sometimes proved tricky to navigate in my middle level classroom. But dealing with those events was small stuff compared to teaching in the current political environment, where it seems no topic is off-limits and no insult is over the line.
In 1992, when Ross Perot was an independent candidate running against incumbent President George HW Bush and Governor Bill Clinton, three of my seventh grader boys portrayed these candidates in nuanced, funny, and powerful debate performances. “George Bush” was confident and articulate; “Bill Clinton” was very personable and gave detailed, lengthy responses, and “Ross Perot” made us laugh as he spoke in homespun colorful cliches.
Classmates asked thoughtful questions of the debaters. Because they’d all studied several debates and interviews featuring the real-life candidates, these mock events reflected the views of the actual candidates and offered insights which helped inform everyone’s learning in an engaging, entertaining way.
Last August when Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly hosted the first Republican debate and asked Donald Trump her now-famous question (“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals… Your twitter account has many disparaging comments about women’s looks…Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president…), I knew it would be a challenge — to say the least — to have one of my current middle school students stand behind the podium and face his classmates as, say, Donald Trump.
The thought of my “Donald Trump” responding to his classmates with a nasty joke about Rosie O’Donnell, a quip about the joy of making politically incorrect comments, or an insult calling Megyn Kelly sick and crazy, followed by the utterings that she had blood coming out of her eyes and “her wherever” made ME sick and crazy, a feeling I still can’t shake.
I know I have an obligation to teach civics, but if I do tiptoe into some authentic political experiences this election year, how can I contain the predictable spillover into challenging classroom behaviors?
How can I be authentic myself and yet present neutral and objective information about bombastic or misogynist bullies?
And how can I do any of this without disenfranchising those students whose parents support those same political bullies? How can I do any of it without alienating those students who firmly believe that their candidate of choice can do no wrong? Without inadvertently causing conflicts between students on opposing sides?
I know that seventh and eighth graders are in the process of moving from concrete to abstract thinking, so they often see life in black and white. Just like the candidates and many of those who support them, these learners are passionate about their beliefs; they love taking strong stances and they love to argue about what’s right and wrong.
I also know that when adolescents are given engaging, authentic opportunities to learn, such as taking part in mock debates and other political activities, they are taking important steps towards becoming responsible, informed, participatory citizens.
And I realize that as their teacher, regardless of my personal angst, I owe it to them to find ways to teach them about difficult topics.
In preparation for doing just that, I watched the second of the three 1992 debates featuring George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. I was struck by how civilized their performances were. They listened to the moderator; they answered with specifics; they followed the time constraints; they treated each other with respect.
Even so, at one point an audience member, apparently speaking about the entirety of the campaign and not that specific debate, asked, “Can we focus on the issues and not the personalities and the mud?”
The three candidates more or less agreed that they could just that. Unfortunately, I can’t foresee any way that would happen with all of today’s candidates.
But I’m thinking that this question would make the perfect overarching theme for my tentative foray back into the world of politics with my seventh grade students. I’ll start by writing it on the board and then we’ll all take it from there.
All hell may break lose.
But my students will be engaged and interested, and maybe we’ll all learn a thing or two about what it takes to be a productive member of a rapidly-changing democratic society.