Is this election safe to teach at schools?
One thing was certain: Christian Scott’s eighth-grade civics class would not be watching that Donald Trump video.
“The Access Hollywood video was a no-go,” said Scott, a teacher at the Patrick Lyndon K-8 Pilot School in West Roxbury. “There was vulgarity in that. Even if it was beeped out, these kids are savvy enough. There would have been howling and pounding the desk and laughing, like ‘OMG he just said that!’”
Instead, Scott thought it best to let the CNN’s Anderson Cooper raise the issue during the second debate, which students watched in class.
Elections create real-time civics lessons for students, but the 2016 race for the White House has created a particular quandary for educators trying to expose students to the democratic process. How do you create a classroom environment void of the acidic political climate outside of the school? How do you allow students to express their burgeoning political views without offending or marginalizing their peers?
Some educators have opted to shy away from difficult conversations about the election, which includes two of the most unpopular candidates in history. Other teachers are forging ahead, albeit with limitations.
Scott created an entire curriculum around the election. He showed Michelle Obama’s passionate speech that followed Trump’s Access Hollywood video as a way to underscore school values about respect. Students created their own political cartoons and conducted post-mortems on each of the presidential debates.
“We spent like 120 minutes looking at these two people talking, maybe longer,” said Scott before the third and final debate. “Did anyone find their opinion of either Clinton or Trump changed?”
Luisa Sanchez, 14, and a native of the Dominican Republic, went first, saying, “My opinion of the candidates only changed a little. I feel like I don’t like any of the candidates, but if I had to pick, I’d probably pick Hillary because she’s trying to help immigrants, and I’m one of them.”
Wagner Rivera, one of the few Trump-leaning students in class, said his opinion changed too.
“I do, like, see him a little bit different now,” he said. “People thought, like, no one could trust him that he was just going to be doing stupid stuff. Now that I see it, he’s not going to be doing everything that stupid, but still some stupid stuff.”
These are the conversations and activities that Boston-area administrators say they want students engaged in because it will help them improve the world in which they will inherit. Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang said they strive “to affirm students’ cultural and linguistic identities” and the presidential election points “to the ever-increasing importance of this dialogue.”
But there are also educators who are tiptoeing around the election.
More than 40 percent of teachers said they were hesitant to teach about the presidential race, according to an informal online survey responded to by about 2,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal advocacy group. That uncertainty varied depending on the age of the students, with elementary school teachers being more timid than high school teachers to use this election as a teaching tool.
The spring survey of educators who subscribe to the center’s Teaching Tolerance newsletter also found more than half of respondents saw an uptick in uncivil political discourse. And, the survey said, more than two-thirds reported students – mostly immigrants, children of immigrants or Muslims – feared for their families’ future after the election.
At the beginning of the school year, Gisel Saillant had her sixth grade students at Rindge Avenue Upper School in Cambridge, about 100 of them, complete a fill-in-the-blank poem about their hopes, dreams, likes, and fears.
“I had three students who wrote down ‘I worry that Donald Trump will win the election,’ ” the social studies teacher said. “That’s how students responded without any mention of the election, so this is something they are thinking about.”
She planned to start teaching the election last week. Her hesitation, she said, stems from a desire to make sure her students have the tools and context to not only critically examine the candidates and their platforms, but also express their views on both.
“But I’m not hesitant to do it,” she said. “It is my responsibility to take the uncomfortable and make it comfortable, so they learn to talk about it.”
Now, she’s just trying to figure out exactly what her lesson plans on the election will contain and how long she’ll spend on the subject.
Students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School said they spend a lot of time talking – and thinking – about the election on social media, at home, and in class. Their Advanced Placement US History teacher made them watch the presidential debates and takes notes as homework.
“Oh, I’m so excited,” Mai Nguyen, a 15-year-old sophomore, deadpanned.
In class, they also analyzed the questions submitted online during the second, town-hall-style debate. And through all the discussions, students have come to realize that there is not a lot of diversity of thought in Cambridge.
“Sometimes, because Cambridge is so liberal, having discussions can be kind of boring,” Nguyen said.
Still, the students said they wonder: How are Trump and Clinton actually going to implement the policies they promote? Would there be this much attention to the presidential race if not for the historic nature of Clinton’s run? Are third-party candidates real players in this race? And why the disconnect between wonkish policy and social issues?
“At our age, we’re kind of bombarded with a lot of opinions and ideas and we’re just supposed to accept it, but we’re starting to question it more,” said her classmate Neely McKee, also 15.
And students are making their opinions known in ways subtle and forthright. Back at the Lyndon School, Scott put up two posters near the water fountain at his school -- one of Clinton and one of Trump.
“So far there’s not a bit of graffiti on it, but they keep giving Donald a drink – and it’s always when I’m not looking,” he said of the Trump’s poster, which appears to have been sprinkled with water. “I’ll come by, and he’ll have a new set of wrinkles.”