Teaching civics during an uncivil election

Alyssa Pressler, 505-5438/@AlyssaPressYD
  • Teachers have had to tread carefully when discussing this year's election in class.
  • Stressing respect and difference of opinions has been key in the classroom.

There's no denying that it has been a unique presidential election this year, and teachers in York County have faced new challenges when discussing the election in class. 

In early October, the National Education Association announced it was launching a campaign to highlight something it calls the "Trump Effect." According to a news release on its website, the organization gathered educators, counselors and experts together to share firsthand accounts of the effect in their classrooms.

Fourth-grade teacher Sue Thomas addresses Southern Elementary School students after a mock debate held by the students Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

"Since Trump entered the race for president last year, educators have witnessed a steady increase in bullying and harassing behavior that mirrors his words and actions on the campaign trail," the release said. 

The National Education Association is the nation's largest teachers union and has endorsed Hillary Clinton — so it has an interest in the outcome of the election. However, some local teachers said both candidates' uncivil behavior has made classroom discussions about the election a dicey prospect.

Christy Rehm, a Dover Area school board member and a high school teacher in Adams County, said she has seen the campaigns' negative effects in her own classroom. Rehm teaches a speech and journalism class as well as an English class for college credit in Adams County. 

During the spring primaries, Rehm held a number of in-depth discussions about the two candidates and the elections, but as the election progressed, she became more wary of discussing the topic in any of her classrooms. She said she has seen students in her classroom break down. 

"People were joking about women not being able to vote," Rehm recalled. A student "started crying and said, 'As a Muslim, I'm terrified. I'm afraid of what could happen to my family. People are hateful toward us.'" 

Rehm's classroom also has a number of Hispanic students who have expressed fear of being deported or separated from their loved ones. She's seen hostile attitudes toward her minority students increase, influencing her decision to have fewer discussions based on opinion and more discussions based around policy and hard facts. 

Rehm explained that civil discourse hasn't been modeled by Trump this election season, making it far more difficult to encourage students in her classroom to have courteous discussions about polarizing topics. 

"This school year we haven't talked about it much because it's become very hostile, very tense," Rehm said. "I don't want to create an environment in class where students can't feel safe." 

Some teachers said they haven't seen students modeling mudslinging in their classrooms, but they did admit they've had to approach this election season carefully with students of all ages. Setting clear expectations was a first step for teachers such as  Megan Axe, a high school history teacher at Red Lion. 

Axe said the No. 1 difference she has noticed with this presidential election is that more students are involved. 

"Over the past few months, even before the primary, you could walk down the hallway and kids were talking about the election, which was great as a history teacher to hear," she said. 

Axe said her students have remained respectful of one another in her classroom, which has students from freshmen to seniors. The students are interested in the issues, particularly the Supreme Court. Axe said she stresses to students that they are allowed to have an opinion, but they must state it in an academic manner that is backed with facts. 

Like other teachers, Axe said she combats the politically charged atmosphere by encouraging her students to focus on the issues, not the candidates, although many of her students have expressed disappointment in both. 

"You're not just voting for the person; you're voting for the ideology behind that person," Axe explained. 

Both Axe and Rehm admitted that at times they have to take a step back to remain impartial as teachers in front of their students. Axe said that she's had to say "No comment" to students when they've asked questions about the election, and Rehm said she reacts similarly in some situations. 

Talking with high school students about the polarizing election is one thing, but dealing with fourth-graders is another matter. Southern Elementary teacher Sue Thomas decided to face the election head-on by hosting a mock debate for her fourth-graders, something of a tradition. Thomas has hosted a mock debate and election at the school for each presidential election in the 29 years she has been teaching. 

Fourth-graders host mock debate at Southern Elementary

There was no yelling, no name-calling and no mudslinging by the fourth-grade students who were representing the candidates in the debate. Instead, they spoke clearly and concisely about their candidate's thoughts on five topics. Thomas said she spoke with her class at length about respect before moving forward with the mock debate and election, something she's just had to do this election year. 

"My biggest concern was about how (the election) was happening in the real world and not having it come into class," Thomas said. "I've never had another election where I've had to worry about that."