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Middle School Social Studies Dilemma: How to Teach About Elections When Campaigns are Toxic?

October 18, 2016

The NYTimes ran a thought provoking and even handed article describing the dilemma faced by Brent Warthke, an Eau Claire WI middle school social studies teacher: how do I introduce Presidential politics to a group of 8th grade students in my social studies class? Back when I attended middle school (in the early 1960s when it was Junior High School), when I taught middle school (in the early 1970s), and when I led school districts (from 1980 onward) the issue of how to teach about politics was fairly straightforward: do not display any biases and try to make certain students understood both sides of the issues being debated. This year the challenge is how to present a toxic and vulgar campaign without having students sent to the office. In the words of one middle school student quoted in the article:

“We self-censor a lot,” said Connor Felton, 12. “I think if you repeat some stuff that Trump says, you could get sent down to the principal’s office. Maybe even expelled.”

Indeed, if a student teased a fellow student who was handicapped or fat or if a male student made references to grabbing a female by her genitals or sneered about her period they would be sent to the office… not because it was “politically incorrect” but because it is demeaning, bullying, and uncivil. Similarly if a teacher or administrator overheard a group of white students jeering at a group of immigrant students they would find it intolerable and put a stop to it.

Part of public education is learning how to conduct debates civilly and to gain a clear understanding of each student’s perspective on issues. This is part of the explicit and implicit curriculum because it is part of the explicit and implicit conduct we expect from each other and we expect our police to enforce. The saddest reality of this election is that the students who are being exposed to national politics for the first time are learning what Mr. Trump, Ms. Clinton, and themes media are teaching them… and I don’t believe it’s the lesson Mr. Warthke and his counterparts are wanting them to learn about how democracy functions.

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