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Approaching Trump in the Classroom

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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As a high school American History and Government teacher, I take seriously my obligation to refrain from giving any inclination of my party affiliation. More than anything else, I don’t want my views to influence unduly what my students believe, nor do I want any of them to suspect me of grading based on my own political leanings—which I would never do. I couldn’t care less what party my students support, so long as each of them leaves my classroom with a better understanding of why they support it. 

During presidential election seasons, I’m especially careful to avoid sharing my personal views about any candidate. But we have never had a frontrunner like Donald Trump, nor has our political system ever been so polarized. In this uncharted territory, here is how I have managed Trump in my classroom. 

Encourage students to speak out

As part of a unit on government and the media, students explored how to write political opinion pieces. One senior wrote a thoughtful article on The Donald’s flaws, and she shared her story Trump: A True Republican? in The Gator, the school’s online student news site, which I advise. “Even if Trump fails to win the Republican nomination, and even if he fails to win against Clinton or Sanders, the fact that he has made it this far speaks volumes to the current state of American political consciousness,”she writes. This passionate yet rational tone fostered thoughtful debate among not just her classmates, but the whole community. Students did not need me to chime in. 

Criticize Trump’s behavior, not his politics 

All the same, students continue to ask what I think of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, like how Mexico is bringing “drugs,”“crime,”and “rapists”into the United States, or how he uses “extremely unattractive” and “bimbo”to describe accomplished female journalists. As a teacher, I feel a higher obligation to respond, fearful that students would take my silence for indifference at best, or support at worst. As a leader and mentor, I need to model considerate behavior. I shy from commenting on Trump’s political platform, but without losing my calm, I express how I believe that such language is not suitable for a person vying for the highest office in the land. 

Keep the conversation going

In all my classes, not just Government, I devote time to discussing the election. Simply avoiding Trump, however controversial he may be, does not foster student understanding. I frequently remind students to remain civil but passionate, as it’s probable that some of their peers, along with millions of other Americans, support Trump. I challenge students to act more mature than the current state of American political discourse, and they continue to impress. 

Use Trump to delve into policy issues

Whatever one’s feelings on Trump, it’s difficult to dispute that his candidacy has captured the attention of young people. More than ever before, I’ve found my students are interested in American politics and the role of government in their lives. I sometimes redirect conversation about Trump to important policy issues. This has inspired students to write an array of politically oriented stories for The Gator, including Curbing Gun Violence in America, How Women are Portrayed by the Media, Super Pacs: The Third Rail of Politics?, Brimmer Seniors to Cast First Ballot in MA Primary, and Congressman Kennedy on Trade, Healthcare and Education. At my school, conversation about politics—not just Trump—is alive and well. I would like to think I have played at least some role in contributing to that culture. 

How do you manage Trump in your classroom? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

  • Guest
    D. Krantz Monday, 04 April 2016

    As a middle school teacher, it's often much harder to talk "politics" with the kids not only in a way that they will understand, but also in a way that won't offend their parents. I've found that my middle school students are not yet mature enough thinkers in some cases and often are just repeating what they hear at home. That being said, we do try to delve into the policies and issues, rather than the candidates themselves. I will let my students offer their own opinions, but only as long as they are not belittling to others in the class who differ from them. In recent weeks, they have had a much harder time understanding that I will not tell who I would vote for, which is all really seem to care about right now in 7th grade. I've had to resort to simply saying "none of the above" or "I will not tell you that."

  • Guest
    Marc Hodgkinson Monday, 04 April 2016

    As a Canadian Elementary Teacher (Grades 5-8), the U.S. Election is something that usually passes us by without a discussion. 2008 got our attention because of the historic election of Barack Obama. This year, my students have been asking questions because Donald Trump exists on their radar. They hear the inflammatory things he is saying (particularly my Muslim students) and they have questions about what this means for us as Canadians. I have spent some time addressing the things that he has said that are particularly troubling. They do seem to have a sense that there is a portion of the American population that supports this kind of hatred - but, they also seem to realize that it is a small percentage. We recently looked at the career Jackie Robinson and talked about segregation. One of my students asked - "Isn't that what Donald Trump wants again?" An honest question from a young mind trying to make sense of the world.

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Guest Saturday, 03 December 2016