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For educators, there’s no debate: this is a tough election to teach

October 18, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
It’s not uncommon to assign students the task of watching the presidential debates. But in this election, the sexualized and rough rhetoric is proving a new challenge for teachers. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Richard House of Gunston Middle School in Virginia and Christopher Cavanaugh of Plainfield High School in Indiana about how they’re dealing with the election.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: As we know, tomorrow’s the final presidential debate. Tens of millions of voters will be watching, but there are other audiences too, including middle and high school students around the country, who are often watching and even tweeting as part of their civics or government classes.

During this campaign season the nature of what’s being discussed, particularly questions about sexual assault and other tough rhetoric, makes this a different year for teachers and students.

That’s the focus of this week’s Making the Grade segment.

We begin in an A.P. government class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.

ANDREW ORZEL, Teacher, T.C. Williams High School: I guess the first question I would pose to you is, why? Why actually watch these things? Anybody have thoughts on why you’re drawn to this?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Orzel is getting his seniors ready for tomorrow night’s debate. And given what was discussed right off the bat in the last debate, some of the students are not feeling enthused about what the candidates might want to focus on.

ADDISON GUYNN, Student, T.C. Williams High School: I almost stopped watching the last one. It was getting so combative, so loud, it was kind of just hard to get a — like, at one point, it gets to be difficult to handle mentally.

ANDREW ORZEL: And I, as a teacher, honestly have been frustrated by this, in that normally, at the beginning of the year, one of the things we get into is ideology of liberals believe this, conservatives believe this.

Presidential debates usually show that. And you’re not actually getting to see kind of the liberal arguments vs. conservative.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even, so Orzel is assigning his students to watch again. He asked whether the debates might change anyone’s mind and their expectations if the tone was similar.

JAMAL JABATI, Student, T.C. Williams High School: I feel like Trump has the most to gain, because he’s like — he was down by 11 points. Now it’s nine points. So, if he does get on this one, he can have a higher chance of winning.

AMANDA EISENHOUR, Student, T.C. Williams High School: I would say the person who has potentially the most to lose in this election would be the American people, because if we become ingrained in the idea that this is normal, this is the normal tone of our political rhetoric and discourse in this country, then we’re not going to expect more in debates in the future.

And it’s potentially damaging to democracy as an institution in America for many years to come.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Orzel is expected to discuss it in class on Thursday.

And Peter Laboy says he hopes the focus will be different than last time.

PETER LABOY, Student, T.C. Williams High School: We are here arguing about locker room talk and Bill Clinton. And it’s just like, instead of talking about what really matters, we’re talking about each other and negative aspects. And I just don’t think that’s good.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s an issue many teachers are grappling with.

Some 90 percent of high school students take at least one civics class. So, how are teachers dealing with this kind of campaign?

We hear from Richard House. He teaches seventh grade civics at Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Virginia. And Chris Cavanaugh, who teaches government to juniors and seniors at Plainfield High School in Indiana.

Richard, let me start with you.

You’re talking to an audience that’s just turning into teenagers. You had them watch debate one. You didn’t assign debate two. What were their impressions?

RICHARD HOUSE, Gunston Middle School, Arlington, VA: I think a lot of them, words they used, entertained.

But I also tried to bring it back to, let’s focus on the issues, that that hateful rhetoric doesn’t have a place in my classroom. And when we’re talking about the debate, when we’re discussing it, we’re going to focus on the issues.

So, for example, for the first debate, I had them pick two or three issues that were focused on the debate. What did each candidate say about them? And then we can have a classroom discussion. I do not want to take time to really focus on some of the personal behavior that the candidates have exhibited and some of the negative behavior.

They know what I expect of them and the expectations that I have when they walk into my classroom. And this election should be about policy and it should be about the issues and focusing on them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chris, your high school students, what did they think so far?

CHRISTOPHER CAVANAUGH, Plainfield High School: I think they have been a little bit turned off by some of the rhetoric they have been hearing.

I would agree that you try to get them to focus on the policies and not the politics. But, as with having older students, you want to allow them the freedom to be able to discuss some of the issues and some of the rhetoric that’s been used in the debates. So, it’s been a tough row to hoe, so to speak.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chris, staying with you for a second, how do you navigate some of these topics, especially the ones, as teenagers, sexuality, sort of locker room talk, all of that that came up, all the sort of personal attacks that the candidates took on each other? How do you discuss it?

CHRISTOPHER CAVANAUGH: Right.

Well, I think I try to couch it in historical terms, in the fact that, you know, I think mudslinging is nothing new in American politics, or not new in politics, period. You can go back to the Roman states with Cicero.

Or one of my favorites is to discuss the election of 1800, where Jefferson accused Adams of having hermaphroditical tendencies, and Adams said that Jefferson had a mulatto father.

So, slinging mud is nothing new in American politics. It’s tough to get the kids to sort through that to get to those policies and to be able to lay those policies side by side to get to see what the candidates are proposing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Richard House, as you assigned your students to keep track of policy positions, did they notice what was being talked about and what wasn’t?

RICHARD HOUSE: I think there was definitely a notice of the issues that they were focusing on, but, at the same time, they’re always — they’re middle schoolers. There’s a certain maturity level there.

They notice what these candidates are saying and the hateful rhetoric that is coming out of their mouths. So, you have to forewarn them: We’re not going to focus on that. We’re going to take the high road. And some of the things that are coming out of these candidates’ mouths, I don’t want them coming out of yours.

I do want them to be able to formulate their own opinions, but, at the same time, they also have to know that, in my classroom, bigotry and hate doesn’t have a place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Richard, what about the administration or parents knowing that these conversations are happening in the classrooms of their children? Have they been supportive?

RICHARD HOUSE: I think so.

I think my goal this year is to bring certain as we — current events to issue, to light in my classroom. We focused on police brutality. We talked about Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

And after that, I got an e-mail from a parent thanking me for bringing those issues to light, that they were able to have a substantive conversation about police brutality and privilege, something that they normally might not have had at the dinner table.

So, I think parents are appreciative when teachers do bring to light certain issues that are currently going on in our country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chris Cavanaugh, how do you walk the line between teaching them how to think and not what to think?

CHRISTOPHER CAVANAUGH: Well, I think it’s important to create — listening to Richard speak, I think it’s important to create that environment where it’s a safe environment, especially maybe for my students, being a little bit older and maybe a little further along in the political socialization process, to have them start to — a safe environment to express those ideas and then to get them to examine themselves.

I like to play devil’s advocate quite a bit with my students, regardless of what they support, and to challenge them on those views to get them to reexamine their own views.

And, thankfully, you know, we’re well aware of fact-checking organizations that exist, so we can go back and fact-check debates to see what the candidates have said and how well it holds up under scrutiny.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Richard, how do the facts play into it? Technically, they’re coming into your classroom. They’re expecting you to maybe help them see what is true and what isn’t. How do you get that across?

RICHARD HOUSE: I think, a lot of times, it’s my job to guide their thinking, but not tell them what to think, give them the resources out there, so that they can go out and do the research and formulate an opinion on their own.

For example, today, we were talking about voting. We registered to vote for a mock election that we’re going to have in with weeks. And then we focused on voter I.D. laws. I presented information on, these are how voter I.D. laws impact people across this country.

Do you think that — and I posed the question, do you think this is done because of voter fraud, or is it done because — to place an unnecessary burden on minority voters? And then I wanted them to be able to formulate their own opinion.

So, it’s my job to present them with the information they need, but it’s their job to form their own opinion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, Chris, in this day and age, your students can be fairly active during the debate.

The next morning, when you look past through their Twitter feeds or their Facebook comments, what are you looking for?

CHRISTOPHER CAVANAUGH: Honestly, I try not to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTOPHER CAVANAUGH: I have only had a couple kids where I have had to go back and say, you know, what they posted perhaps does not encourage debate. It doesn’t push the debate or conversation forward. You know, you want to avoid the politics of the personal attacks.

So, there have only been a couple kids that I have had to admonish for that. So, we try to — it’s difficult, because we’re trying to promote civic discourse, civil discourse. And, unfortunately, we don’t see that in the adult world as much as — we don’t see it modeled for them as much as it should be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Chris Cavanaugh from Plainfield High in Indiana and Richard House from Gunston Middle School in Virginia, thanks for joining us.

RICHARD HOUSE: Thank you for having me.

CHRISTOPHER CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

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