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Teaching the Election- in an 'Age of Hate,' Part II

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This post is a follow-up to "Teaching the Election- in an 'Age of Hate,' Part I." 

It’s 3:00 PM. Wednesday, November 9th. The school day is over and so, too, the 2016 presidential election . . . and that means for my students and me, no more Election Wednesdays.   

What did my students think of it all? To find out, I asked them several questions, including their final thoughts about Election Wednesdays and the election itself.

The Election Wednesdays discussion opened up the floor to a heated debate. On the one side, there were those who complained that in my desire to keep things civil, I didn’t allow for enough free flow of ideas and expression. “How can you ever expect us to discuss things civilly,” said one of my students, “if every time things got heated, you put a clamp on things.” And on the other side, there were those who verbally patted me on the back for having put a clamp on things. “Things could have so easily gotten ugly,” said another student, ‘if you hadn’t put a clamp on things...” Divided.

Their final thoughts on the election itself boiled down to this: strong interest, and at the same time, widespread dissatisfaction with the election overall.

As for me personally, I’d start by saying that I am glad it’s over. Like so many Americans, I’m tired. Worn out. And in bad need of a break.

 What a challenge this has been!

One big challenge I faced occurred in my classroom right after the first general election Presidential Debate. It was true that at first there was civil and respectful sharing. Then all of the sudden, there were a few close calls. Kind of like a San Gabriel Mountains campfire during Santa Ana winds, the situation threatened to quickly get out of hand. 

To keep things calm, cool, and collected, I actually had to step in and repeatedly remind everyone of the ground rules. “All of you will treat each other with respect. This means that name calling, accusations, verbal attacks, sarcasm, and other negative exchanges (which include eye rolling and interrupting) will be viewed as counterproductive to successful teaching and learning and will not be tolerated.”

Interestingly enough, I had to spend some time defining the term “name calling,” this after having heard a student claim that when one candidate calls another candidate “a liar,” this is not name calling; it’s a fact.

Another big challenge I faced – the single biggest challenge, in fact – occurred right after the third debate. It was then that my students scattered in different directions with the election.

There was one group of students that clearly didn’t want to hear another word about the topic. They were so done with it all. Totally disgusted. Then there was another group that appeared to be just getting warmed up. It was as if viewing the third debate sparked an interest in learning everything possible about the candidates, their policy stands, the presidential election process, etc. What energy they brought into the room!  Then, there was a third group that I flat out could not read. Where did they stand? To this day, I’m not sure as they withdrew into a cave of silence.

 Despite the challenges, there were many wonderful moments along the way. Some highlights:

  1. Reading my students’ Letters to the Next President. For many, it was a tough assignment.  It called for writing and that’s always a challenge – made even more challenging because I continued the call for reflection and revision. But oh so many great letters came out of that, some of which were even highlighted on the Letters to the Next President website.
  2. Watching my students engage in a mock election. They were so into it, as the photographs make clear.
  3. Listening to all the great displays of civil political discourse, especially when my students, via video conference, engaged in a discussion with Dr. Scott Petri’s John F. Kennedy High School juniors at on the issue of whether America should build a wall along its entire border with Mexico. What a great moment that was for the students from both schools. Exemplary discourse, especially when their opinions on the matter differed. It also sparked something unexpected. There was a demand from students at both schools to continue these discussions post-election on topics important to them. These topics include racial profiling, free college tuition, taxing churches, and the effect of the Common Core State Standards on students’ educational experiences. The excitement reinforced to the teachers involved that students will dig deeper and learn about topics which intrinsically motivate them.
  4. Seeing the students dig into the extra credit opportunities described in my previous post.  These included:
  • Creating various works of election relevant art
  • Working the polls on election day
  • Hosting  a Debate Party
  •  Making a ballot box, Vote Here Sign, and/or I Voted cupcakes for their mock election
  • Attending an Election Eve Watch Party

As for the question, what if anything will I do differently four years from now?

I can’t yet say for sure. Still too close. Certainly, I would teach it again. I just hope that the next time around, the candidates, whoever they may be, will discuss the issues as civilly and respectfully as my seniors did during this election season.

Sure, there was a close call now and then. But all in all, these seniors, as I would guess is true of the overwhelming majority of millennials nationwide, rose up and took a good close look at the election, as we all hoped they would. Certainly, I never once heard any expression of hate. 

Peter Paccone is a San Marino High School social studies teacher with 30 years of teaching experience. A big fan of tech in ed, civic learning, PBL's, flipping, and all things TED, he frequently writes about these topics for the Edutopia.org website, the KQED In the Classroom website, and for several other online, education-related publications as well. He's given an ED-Talk (TED-Talk style) presentation at the 2015 and 2016 California Teachers Summit and at the 2016 Arcadia Innovative Teacher Summit. His first TED-Ed Lesson - Why is it so Hard to Amend the US Constitution? - can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwREAW4SlVY. Former San Marino Unified School District Superintendent Loren Kleinrock worked with Mr. Paccone to not only produce this TED-Ed Lesson but to also produce this article, Teaching the Election-  in an 'Age of Hate'?

Peter Paccone

Peter Paccone Social Studies Teacher & PBS Digital Innovator

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