Mock-election student voters at schools across the country might expect to find useful information on the presidential candidates’ policy positions on Scholastic’s Election 2016 news site. Instead, Scholastic offers kids preparing to cast a classroom ballot a cheat sheet on Republican Donald Trump’s childhood (“As a teen, Trump was a star baseball player”), fortune, and many grandchildren. To introduce Hillary Clinton, Scholastic notes that the Democrat once sold cookies (“Clinton was a Brownie and a Girl Scout”), without mentioning that she later disavowed the idea of staying home to bake them. Foreign policy, guns, jobs—the topics that animate voting decisions in the grownup world—are glaringly absent.
What’s happening in classrooms reflects these omissions. In a typical election year, teachers might pin a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the wall, lead a lesson on the branches of government, and moderate a debate. But as the language on the campaign trail continues to polarize voters, those strategies feel both incomplete and perilous; even the driest of lessons can prompt parent complaints or stoke bullying. (Indiana high school students chanted “Build a wall!” at a basketball game in March, an ugly jeer aimed at Latino students on the rival team.) A survey published by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 43% of K-12 educators are “hesitant to teach about the election,” and more than half have “seen an increase in uncivil political discourse” in their schools. Other teachers have been prohibited from discussing the subject; for example, one middle school principal in Portland, Oregon, has instituted a “gag order” on election topics, according to the survey.
“Teachers right now are afraid to teach the election,” says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a nonprofit founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that develops educational games about government. “An election is part of a democratic process, it shouldn’t be something scary. We need to help them have those conversations.”
Dubé and her peers are fighting an uphill battle. According to researchers, the rancorous political atmosphere is magnifying a secular decline in civics education. “We don’t do as much civic education as we once did,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
CIRCLE analysis suggests that schools’ narrow focus on math and English language arts, at the expense of subjects such as social studies and history, has contributed to a drop in the number of course hours allocated for government and current events. In parallel, political polarization has made many classrooms more homogeneous, posing a challenge for teachers looking to represent diverse viewpoints.
“Fifty years ago, it was common to have a course called ‘Problems of Democracy,’” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. “Young people had an open space to talk about what’s in the news, with the goal of forming values and opinions in terms of their political leanings.”
Now, she says, “We no longer see or hear from people who are different politically. Parents will say that by talking about politics, ‘You’re brainwashing our children.’”
Some undeterred teachers and curriculum providers are cautiously wading into these turbid waters. In Indialantic, Florida, where seventh graders are required to take a state-wide civics exam, middle school teacher Stephanie Moody has found a way to encourage debate while avoiding ad hominem attacks. She visits nonpartisan websites, compiles profiles on the candidates, and then anonymizes them. “I remove all of the pictures, all the political party names, all the candidate names,” Moody says. “The kids go in kind of blindfolded, and it forces them to look at the issues.”
One year, the libertarian candidate won her class vote. “That was a great conversation starter,” she says. “The kids get really into it.” She’d like to do a similar lesson this fall, but isn’t sure it will work. “I think the kids will be a little bit more in tune with guessing who each candidate is, because they’re such big characters.”
When viewpoints from home and digital media overflow into the classroom, she asks students to defend their beliefs with facts. “It has to be evidence-based: What’s the quote? Where’s your source?”
Civics teacher Erich Utrie, a self-professed “Star Wars geek” who adorns his classroom in Jefferson, Wisconsin, with figurines and posters, has also grappled with establishing classroom norms that clash with what students witness outside of school. “You don’t want to stifle what kids are saying, but they have to communicate their thoughts in a civil manner. ‘I can say this at home’—but you can’t say that here. It’s a challenge sometimes,” he says.
Utrie sees his own example as central to the solution. “It comes down to modeling. As a classroom teacher you show that, ‘Hey, I’m listening to you, I’m listening to both sides.’” He also has an “open-door policy” for parents in his middle school’s rural community, located halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, who might be interested in visiting class.
In recent years, Utrie has started using an iCivics game called Win the White House, which puts students in the shoes of make-believe candidates. Via an avatar of their choice, they fundraise, conduct polls, advertise, and give speeches. The game plays out state by state, and rewards smart strategic choices—for example, polling a state to understand its views, and then avoiding topics of disagreement when making an appearance there.
“They might not be voting for president right now, but we want them to develop the skills,” says iCivics director of content Carrie Ray-Hill, a former middle school teacher. The game involves challenges like parsing the differences in candidates’ policy positions after conducting a side-by-side comparison of their speeches.
Ray-Hill hopes that the game, which relies on party platform statements but sidesteps the most recent and potentially explosive news reports, provides teachers with a neutral foundation for their lessons. Indeed, she knows firsthand how quickly parents and administrators can turn on educators for perceived bias. Once, she presented data on presidents’ vacation time. “I was literally showing a table of vacation days, I was saying positive and negative things about both parties, and the kids didn’t see the balance that I was providing.” Parents called the school to voice their anger.
Dubé remains hopeful that this election season becomes an opportunity for civics education to re-enter the spotlight. “People are coming back to this idea that citizens have to be prepared to pay attention and think the issues through and have literacy skills with respect to media claims or any claims,” she says. “It’s not enough to sign them up to vote.”
Newsela, an education startup that publishes news articles at five different reading levels, has become a leading resource for improving nonfiction literacy. In the process, it reinforces the connection between literacy and the critical-thinking skills that are central to good citizenship. During primary season, the company made that connection even more explicit by organizing a state-by-state mock election that logged over 400,000 student votes.
“The more students get engaged, the more reason they have to read,” marketing director Alex Wu told Xconomy.
This fall, Newsela hopes to see 1 million students participate in its online general election. The company has also partnered with Rock the Vote to encourage students turning 18 to register for the official polls.
For many students, the Newsela election became an outlet for their frustrations, and a way to be heard. “My fifth graders are outraged that they can’t vote yet—they’ve even expressed an interest in getting a fake ID so they can show up at the polls,” Erin Green, who teaches language arts and social studies in Austin, Texas, wrote in a blog post.
For other students, civics lessons have landed in their backyards—or rather, their school auditorium. This past spring high school students in Sioux City, Iowa, protested when their superintendent let Trump hold a rally on their campus, because the Republican contender had been using language that flew in the face of their school’s anti-bullying rules. The Trump event took place, but grownups were forced to acknowledge the students’ voices.
“Some promising research indicates that if we give students in high school strong education in civics, parents too can change,” says CIRCLE’s Kawashima-Goldberg. In one study, students read news articles and discussed their reflections at the dinner table. “They found an effect on the parents’ voting, as well as the kid.”
It’s an encouraging reminder that in this season of rising political rage, a little conversation can go a long way.