Messy presidential campaign challenges area teachers’ classrooms

For area high school teachers America’s presidential campaign has been the best of times and the worst of times.

It has been the best in that it’s provided endless teaching moments on the workings and variations in America’s election process.

It has been the worst because unlike any other modern-era campaigns for the White House, this year’s extraordinarily contentious election has included graphic disputes over lurid personal behavior and allegations of criminal behavior between the two lead candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In August the Journal-News first brought you some area high school teachers who were largely excited by the prospect of turning the presidential race into a once-every-four-year learning tool for their students.

They knew given the public’s large degree of unfavorability toward Clinton, a former U.S. Secretary of State, and Donald Trump, a business and real estate tycoon, that their classroom lessons could be in for a bumpy ride.

What they didn’t anticipate, they now say, was the historic, dizzying and at times disturbing roller coaster of a campaign. They’ve been examining the race with their teenage students, who they say overall have been captivated by the political battle.

“It’s been contentious and people are kind of disappointed maybe in the top two candidates,” Lakota East High School AP government and politics teacher Tisha Grote said last week.

“But it’s honestly enticed the discussion … and my students have had something to say about it. Positive or negative, they know what’s going on. I hate to say this but sometimes when you hear some of the negative things that are coming out on both sides, it actually gets my students more involved,” said the veteran teacher.

University of Cincinnati’s Sarah Stitzlein, associate professor of education and co-editor of the online Democracy & Education publication, praised area high school teachers for using the messy campaign to instruct teens.

“The contentiousness of this election and its candidates is not a reason to decline to talk about it in our schools,” said Stitzlein.

“Students need to learn civic responsibility and that such responsibility is not to be shirked when the election is contentious or the choices seem disappointing, but rather that our responsibility is even greater in such moments to enact our citizenship in ways that assuage the problems and put forth better alternatives,” she said.

“In the face of political divisiveness, quality citizenship education can help students learn how to deliberate across political differences and to problem solve together,” she said.

But sometimes that divide is not bridged, said Mason High School AP U.S. Government and Politics teacher Maria Mueller, and the lessons for teens can be “particularly disheartening.”

Mueller said she was disappointed when two prominent Republicans - Ohio Governor John Kasich and Ohio Senator Rob Portman – announced they woudl write in another candidate’s name rather than vote for the Republican nominee Trump.

“This sets an example of essentially not participating in making the final choice for president, at best, or at worst sets an example that may mislead other voters to do the same now or in future elections, mistakenly thinking those votes will be counted, when in Ohio they will absolutely not be counted,” said Mueller.

“Unfortunately, this seems to be another occasion necessitating teachers to undo what politicians’ examples are mis-teaching our students,” she said.

But for Lakota East senior Nathan Duran, the election’s wilder aspects have only heightened his already strong interest in national politics though he is “disappointed” in the ballot’s top two choices.

“We have two candidates who are both over 60 percent unfavorability and I think the leader of us all should be the lesser of two evils,” said Nathan, who is too young at 17 to vote.

Senior classmate Zachary Thomas, 17, said fellow students talk often about the campaign.

“This election is very much a hot topic, in negative tones of course (and) it has gotten heated,” said Zachary of discussions among other students. “It’s very much more a case of being passionate against the other candidate. That’s what the excitement is directed toward.”

“But this is history,” he said. “You have the first woman running – for better or worse – that’s definitely a glass ceiling that may or may not be broken. And on the other side … we’ve had outside Washington candidates win before with Ronald Reagan, but we have a business man who is running, so it’s interesting.”

“But we are really good about stressing you don’t judge somebody based on their political views,” said Zachary. “And even though they (students) may be the complete opposite side of the (political) spectrum from you, at the end of the day you are still friends.”

VIDEO: Veteran American government teacher at Lakota East High School talks about how unusual this presidential campaign has been for using it as a classroom lesson @journal.news.com

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