The insults and arguments lobbed back and forth by presidential candidates are enough to make an adult’s head spin. Now try explaining it to a class of curious middle schoolers.
Social studies teachers across Minnesota are working through sensitive topics as they teach politics in this divisive election season. So divisive that some teachers have decided not to go there.
“I don’t blame people for not wanting to approach it,” said Mark Westpfahl, a teacher at St. Paul’s Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet. “I would hope more administrators in districts would make it more comfortable for teachers to be able to do it and have the deep conversations.”
What to do when students press for a teacher’s take on one candidate’s “nasty woman” or another’s “deplorables”?
Believe it or not, even that could be a teachable moment for young people trying to develop their own views.
A few weeks ago, a couple of eighth-graders asked Westpfahl about the video featuring Donald Trump’s comments about groping women. Westpfahl said he turned the question back on the kids, asking them to explain the video in their own words.
Westpfahl showed them, “I trust them enough with some of the content that we’re doing,” he said.
Many say they do their best to keep personal views out of it.
“Having that intention, that professionalism, is paramount,” said David Salzer, a government teacher at Edison High School in northeast Minneapolis. “That line between political passion and political emotion is constant.”
For his part, Salzer has turned to local politics because of the nastiness of the presidential election.
In contrast to his liberal-leaning student body in St. Paul, Westpfahl said he leans conservative. But when students ask him, he said urges them to figure it out by researching his political affiliation. He said he tries not to bring up his own opinions in class.
Erik Anderson and Jason Dockter ask the ninth-graders they teach at Edina’s Valley View Middle School to check sources and connect what candidates say back to class topics. Anderson said he recently fielded a question about Trump’s “nasty woman” comment with context and “let kids then make [their] own decision from there.”
The polarizing rhetoric in the campaigns could disturb some younger kids, said Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
It’s teachers who have the ability to model standards for civil discourse, according to Abi Gewirtz, a professor in the department of family social science, also at the U.
Scott Glew teaches eighth grade global studies at Salk Middle School in Elk River in Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District, which often votes Republican. At the beginning of each year, he said he outlines classroom standards and “how people in a democracy should interact with each other.”
“They start to recognize on their own when the candidates are off the mark with those types of things,” he said.
Most high school students are would-be voters caught months or years shy of turning 18, but many can fill in bubbles in schoolwide elections. At Como Park High School, students filed into an auditorium Tuesday to cast ballots in the first-ever statewide mock election for high schoolers, conducted by the Secretary of State’s office.
Hillary Clinton nabbed 63 percent of the more than 900 ballots submitted at Como Park. Trump garnered 8 percent. But at Willmar High School and Park Christian High School in Moorhead, students swung for Trump.
Voting for real will be Lauren Bosacker, a senior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis who turns 18 on Saturday, just days before the election.
“I definitely feel lucky,” she said. “I want to vote for this. I want to be involved in what my country is doing and what decisions they’re making.”
But the nastiness is getting to Skylar Abell, 17, also a senior at Southwest.
“It makes me like America a lot less,” he said.
While Como Park High School seniors Minna Stillwell-Jardine, Rachel Ruskin and Marie Wulff, all 17, agree that the tone of the election is dark, Ruskin found something of value to be gained.
“It teaches a really good lesson about how to adapt to things when it doesn’t fit 100 percent with what you want,” Ruskin said.