In the weeks before Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s success seemed all but guaranteed. Kyle Stumpf, who teaches government at Jenison High School in Michigan, asked students to complete an electoral college prediction. Only a handful of kids in his class of 60 picked Trump as the winner — a forecast in line with national polls at the time.
On the day after the election, teachers had been prepared to conduct business as usual in their classrooms. But as news outlets confirmed Trump’s victory, educators across the country found themselves grappling with how to address students’ strong reactions: tears, gloating, and everything in between.
As students anticipate returning to class this fall after a pandemic-induced hiatus and a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, emotions are once again running at an all-time high. How will schools cope with what is shaping up to be another very intense election season? The 2016 election offered some key lessons.
Trump’s surprise win forced schools to abandon the idea of “business as usual.”
Marie Holmes teaches Spanish at a public high school in New York City. In 2016, the vast majority of students at her school were Latino, and many were immigrants. Few were supportive of Trump. Holmes describes the day after the election as “somber,” with “lots of crying.”
At Stumpf’s school, on the other hand, students’ emotions were more mixed. In general, “the boys were happier than the girls about the results,” he says.
Educators were universally stunned by what happened. “Everyone was so caught off-guard at the result,” says Andrea Zimmerman, an eighth grade civics teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Tennessee.
As the day wore on, teachers adjusted their lesson plans, realizing that students needed time to discuss and process the news. “My students had never cared so much personally about election results,” says Zimmerman.
Holmes’ school principal encouraged teachers to create a supportive space for students to voice their feelings during homeroom period, while Stumpf talked with his class about the nuances of the electoral college system.
Once the initial shock of the election subsided, many students channeled their feelings into civic activism. In the days following the election, most of the students at Holmes’ school left the building to protest together. Her school allowed the demonstrations as long as they were 100% percent student-led.
Since the 2016 election, teachers have had to figure appropriate ways to mix politics and school.
Two years later, the students at Holmes' school were still holding rallies. They organized and held a ceremony of remembrance for victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting, for example. “It was very powerful and impressive to witness,” she says.
As conversations on the national stage grew increasingly hostile, teachers worked harder to ensure classroom discussions were done in a way that best served their students. But finding the line between being fair-minded, balanced, and factual and coming down in favor of one side or the other has been a challenge.
Zimmerman has focused on building students’ civil discourse skills so they have a solid foundation for approaching civics and election-related topics. “You don’t want to stifle students’ opinions,” she says. Rather, her goal is to teach students how to disagree respectfully with each other.
Research is always the first step. Zimmerman offers a wide range of sources and viewpoints so that students are well-informed before taking a position. In her class, kids learn to use phrases like, “I see your point,” and they’re required to state the other side’s perspective before launching into their own. With extremely controversial topics, Zimmerman has students complete a written response instead of debating the subject in class. In this way, kids can express their feelings without the worry of being judged harshly by peers.
To avoid introducing bias, many teachers choose to keep their own political leanings confidential. If students ask Zimmerman who she voted for, she explains why she can’t share that information with them. “I don’t feel I should use that influence,” she says. But she’s open to talking with students about politics once she’s no longer their teacher.
Stumpf agrees. “One of the best compliments I’ve received is that the students have no idea who I voted for,” he says. If students really want to know his political affiliation, he encourages them to revisit the question at the end of the school year. But by then, he says, “Most forget to ask.”
For a long time, Holmes remained similarly reticent about her political views. That changed when Trump was elected. Now she shares her beliefs openly if students ask. “I will not hide my feelings about Trump and his policies,” she says. “So many of my students are immigrants, or their parents are immigrants, and it’s my job to help them feel safe in school.”
Whether school is online or face-to-face, teachers are ready for 2020.
The 2016 election forced schools to adjust to a reality that once seemed impossible. Because of this experience, teachers are much more prepared for 2020. “Everyone understands this could go either way now,” Zimmerman says.
Educators are hopeful that schools will reopen this fall. It’s hard to have meaningful conversations when kids aren’t all in a room together, Holmes says. But even if learning must continue from a distance, teachers will be able to cover election season virtually.
Stumpf rearranged his curriculum to cover election-related content well before November. He also assigns a project in which students create fictional political parties and give a short campaign speech to their classmates. “It’s fun," he says. "We definitely have some polar opposite kids."
Holmes completed a mock election with her students for the 2020 Democratic primary, but she won’t be holding a mock presidential election. Instead, she plans to share political articles from Spanish-language news media outlets and discuss the different perspectives with her class.
In the past, students at Zimmerman’s school participated in mock debates where they posed as actual, real-life candidates. But the school has discontinued that format in favor of other activities, including having students examine the merits — and pitfalls — of the electoral college.
This fall, Zimmerman’s civics class is also conducting a “Cookie Election,” using Keebler and Nabisco as the political parties. In the process, students learn about key components of election season, including voter registration, primaries, campaigning, and Election Day. Zimmerman’s class has already engaged in some Zoom video debates, but the online format makes it difficult to gauge students’ reactions.
If distance learning continues later this year, Stumpf wants to focus more on media literacy. The more we stay home, the more time we likely spend in front of screens, and that means increased exposure to campaign ads that are often misleading. Stumpf wants to teach students to recognize their own biases and understand how ads can reinforce them.
Whatever happens in November, Holmes hopes that students who were disappointed in 2016 and are now of age to vote will be motivated to make their voices heard. “I want to get kids in the habit of paying attention to the elections and voting,” she says. “That’s part of my job too: raising citizens who care about local issues and vote regularly.”
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