Teaching civics has its challenges in nasty election season | PostIndependent.com

Teaching civics has its challenges in nasty election season

Students in Christine Smalley's AP government class at Glenwood Springs High School debate some of the issues in this fall's election.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

Roaring Fork High School government teacher Lyn Williams says he has to wonder when he hears that social studies teachers are stressing out about how to teach civics during an election season that’s been anything but civil.

Instead, he and other teachers in the Roaring Fork School District say they embrace the opportunity to teach young people how to filter through the rhetoric and name-calling, and to simply understand the importance of being socially and politically conscious.

“It’s way more basic than that,” Williams said of the fallacy of placing too much emphasis on what’s been one of the most contentious and polarizing presidential elections in history, rather than focusing on the bigger picture.

“I’m not teaching the election, that’s just happening. At the same time, it’s an amazing time for them to be politically socialized,” he said. “What I am teaching them is how to be politically opinionated and to be aware of their opinion and why it matters.”

During Williams’ junior “fundamentals of American democracy” class last week, students were busy writing paragraphs from interviews they did with adults asking them about specific issues around economics, moral character and crime. The challenge was to determine where the opinions they gathered fit on the political spectrum, and whether it would be considered liberal, conservative, authoritarian or libertarian.

“I want them to understand that everyone has opinions, and it’s not a bad thing,” Williams said.

“The next step is for them to understand that government requires compromise,” he added. “We know that these extreme polar beliefs leads to fracturing, and fracturing in government is a bad thing for numerous reasons.”

Students also debate the issues among themselves, but with one of the main objectives being to listen to the other side, Williams added.

Maintaining a level of decorum carries over from the public forum to the dinner table, said Christine Smalley, a government teacher at Glenwood Springs High School.

One of the exercises she had her AP government class take part in was about just having a well-educated conversation with family or friends.

“Teaching about the political process is so much more alive when it happens in an election season,” she said.

Not only the presidential election, but the entire ballot, especially in Colorado, contains numerous topics for discussion, from raising the minimum wage and universal health care to opening up the primary process to making it harder to amend the state constitution.

“It’s a unique opportunity to explain how we get to choose these things directly, and to have the students understand bottom-up lawmaking,” Smalley said. “I’ve heard more than a couple of times that the students are helping educate their parents on some of the issues.”

At the same time, this year’s presidential race has gotten to the eyes and ears of young people perhaps more so than any past election, she said.

“There’s no running away from it, and it’s all over everyone’s social media and in conversations with friends and family,” Smalley said. “It enters our conversation, but there are so many other topics that need to be dealt with and explained.”

Charlotte Brooks, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Glenwood Springs Middle School, said it’s important to keep classroom discussions focused on the issues and not delve too much into the side stories that have erupted in this year’s presidential race.

“We watch CNN Student News every day, and we talked a lot about the debates and studied the Electoral College and how it works,” Brooks said.

Last week, her students prepared for and had a Socratic seminar to debate specific issues using factual information to back up a point and then relate it to the policy positions of the presidential candidates.

Students on the outer circle scored their peers for staying on topic, sticking to the point and responding politely to each other, she said.

“It’s good to have an organized discussion,” Brooks said, adding that the teachers guide the process but students lead the debate. “It gives the kids an opportunity to do a little bit of research and know something about the issues so they can speak intelligently about it without going to that emotional place right away.”

Matt Wells, who teaches social studies along with Williams at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale, said the rhetoric and divisiveness of this election is clearly different from any he’s had to teach through in the past.

“The lack of substance in the debates sets it apart as well,” he said. “But the other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the issues that are being discussed this time speak directly to some of our kids.

“When a presidential candidate speaks about building a wall and deporting people, there are kids in my class who would be impacted by that,” Wells said. “It’s a level of connectedness that I haven’t seen before.”

As frustrating as the discourse has been, he said it has also served to engage students in a way that he hasn’t seen before.

“As a social studies teacher, we want the kids to be complex thinkers and to use evidence to support claims and arguments. That’s hard when the kids see that isn’t always happening in our politics,” Wells said.

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