Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Culture wars frame the election for students

This is the second in a series of posts I will be writing over the next month about teaching Social Studies during Election season. These reflections are more "off-the-cuff" and some may combine into something worthy of publishing . If I re-draft any pieces here for publication, I will include a link.

Imagine what the final presidential debate looks like to a high school student

The last few days of class have opened my eyes to a campaign season that we lost control of long ago.

From the beginning of this race, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were sharing the spotlight with videos of police officers shooting black men, a national conversation about the Confederate flag and a baker's religious freedom to decline making a cake for a gay wedding.

South Carolina Capitol Grounds, 2015
Photo by Jason Lander, Creative Commons 
Culture wars about the bathrooms assigned to transgender folks in North Carolina got the attention of students around the same time Trump announced that Mexicans are rapists and he was running for president.

That same year in March 2015, the private computer server sitting in Clinton’s home became a news story shortly after the Justice Department released a report showing that the Ferguson, Mo. Police violated the constitutional rights of the city's African-American residents.

Stop and think about how different news is consumed in 2016 compared to back in the day. Consider the degree of confusion and blame surrounding the conflicts that play out in the media.

Now, imagine your 16 year old self participating in today's political process in today’s information environment. The Internet, Twitter, TV and the 24 hour news cycle make it difficult for young people to avoid the news. Most middle and high school students get a dose of current events nearly everyday at school so young people are taking this election in whether they want to or not.

Laws about gender identity and public 
restrooms confuses students. 
Photo by Wayan Vota, Creative Commons
And our children have been overrun with culture wars pitting passionate people with opposing views against each other.

When ideas clash we’re reminded that different versions of the United States exist - dependent on income, race, education, religion and geography. Family and peers serve as filters for the news my students consume.

It is rational for teens to expect drama at every turn in the race to the White House in a world where facts take a backseat to theatrics and soundbites. Most of my students are not surprised by the antics they see unfolding during the election. From the time they began paying attention, outrage continues to get more play than reason.

Like their adult counterparts, today’s teens are equipped to escape the day to day drudgery of news. Their days are spent doing kid things - algebra, texting friends and going to football games. The news cycle moves at warp speed for teens, but the tone is not lost on them. Even though we move quickly from one headline to the next, students are more aware about what’s going on than their parents, teachers and grandparents were as teens. Whether they understand the implications of what they're witnessing is a separate conversation.

Relevant issues and no political resolve in Congress

For teens, the last couple years of conflict has been their introduction to American politics. The divisions have always existed, but we used to be better at coming to grips with not agreeing. Today's power struggles can't be dealt with in a single protest or piece of legislation.

Talking heads on TV have spun out of control making it difficult to discern honest analysis from propaganda. I am mindful that tension is part of our American political legacy and changing the current political culture will be a slow and messy process.

When students witness or take part in a movement like Black 
Lives Matter it can be a powerful teaching moment. Lessons 
on privilege, values, and  how we view news and social 
justice naturally come up in class. Unpacking Blue Lives 
Matter and lessons from All  Lives Matter has impact.  
(Photo Credit: Creative Commons)

Do today's students have the patience to endure a long road to progress? Do the adults they look to for guidance possess the stamina?

I remind students that change requires equal parts desire, optimism and organization. When I get a tired response from my class I am empathetic. My reminder is also aimed in the mirror.

In the face of real challenges, students are confused about American priorities. In class today, a student compared this campaign season to a bad reality TV show that can’t end soon enough. Another student, in light of our conversation about the election, asked if a president can be impeached right away after they take office. Some students began questioning whether the president is very important to our nation. Their reasoning: nothing gets done anyway.

Sign outside Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 
children were shot and killed in 2012 along with six 
adults.  Photo By Justin Lane, Creative Commons
Today's high school juniors were in eighth grade when 20 children under the age of eight were gunned down and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They also know that a solution related to violence or mental health in the United States still has not happened. Debate in Congress? Nope.

This December will mark the four year anniversary of Sandy Hook and nothing substantive has changed. High school students recognize that if the preventable death of twenty children does not usher in a spirit of urgency and bipartisanship then it seems nothing will.

In today's America, teens wonder why we struggle so mightily to tackle tough issues. Why are we so scared?

Guns, immigration, racism and wealth inequality are familiar battles in the United States. Throw in women’s health issues (see Texas, Kansas, Alabama or Arkansas for instance), voting rights and religious freedom/discrimination laws (Georgia and Indiana for instance) and the backdrop to the 2016 Presidential election has been firmly in place for a few years. Voters have taken sides and politicians have been reluctant to compromise. My students are watch without expectation.

When they see the debate highlights (or lowlights depending on your perspective), they aren't looking to be inspired. They're looking for it to end.

What should we expect when candidates are demonized not for their ideas, but for their existence. In some circles, supporters of the candidates are diminished too. Despite my best intentions, lessons about James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are falling on deaf ears.

Students report to me that they don’t believe in a system that fails to deliver. Students, like the rest of us, do not see any indication that bipartisan cooperation is even a goal among members of Congress. Adding a vilified president to the mix will just make it worse.

While some students are comfortable assigning blame, most students are trying to make sense of the issues.

Adults owe it to students to talk about facts, weigh the costs and benefits of ideas and try to understand how someone else can see the exact same choices so differently. You can't imagine the amount of on-the-spot fact checking required in a classroom. In fact, I am willing to bet that in a group setting of adults just as much fact checking would be necessary if facts are actually important.

That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, in the world our students are growing up in, problems exist not as challenges to solve together, but as a means to divide people. They are taking their cues from all of us, including the candidates.

Somehow, legit facts become disputed and half-truths can garner so much airtime that they become the truth. All of this contributes to a political environment that makes statesmanship elusive. Legions of hard-liners grandstand in a fight to be the loudest and sometimes I feel like I am watching just to see the blood spill. And I am the teacher, not the teenager.

It is crazy.

I am not casting blame on my students, just frustration about our shared experience. I am the one responsible to create an engaging atmosphere where students can share ideas in class, ask questions and express opinions. They do those things, but sometimes I wonder how we should make meaning of what is happening.
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PS: Classroom circumstances of concern

Vote for the VPs instead

One student quipped that people should cast a vote for the Vice President since whoever wins will likely be impeached or even worse, assassinated. Obviously, that is not a joking matter and we discussed as much in class. The student did not mean it in a mean-spirited way and his point was that with so much hate surrounding this election, it would not surprise him if an attempt was made to take the life of the president.

But the bigger question for me has to do with a willingness of other students to shrug it off which left me wondering if they have just become indifferent or if they really think the situation is so dire that neither candidate can handle the responsibility of being President of the United States.

As alluded to earlier, high school students lack the context and life experiences to grasp national tragedies and turmoil. I was in the same boat as an early 90’s high school student. Think about it - my students were toddlers when the September 11, 2001 attacks happened. They are caught between witnessing an ugly election season today and what they have learned about history from second hand sources at home, in school or with the help of the Internet. Their context right now includes confusion about Black and blue lives mattering, bullying and a litany of social issues that have divided people.

Michelle Obama Speaks to the Nation about Sexism

After watching Michelle Obama’s speech from October 13 about sexism and the challenges women face, my students wrote a reaction. I will read their written reflections later this week, but as students talked in small groups and volunteers shared out to the class it became clear to me that The First Lady’s message hit home. Today's students seem self-aware and certainly more introspective than I recall being when I was a teenager.

On the other hand, I could not help but wonder how our conversation turned away from the merit of her speech and the universal truths we seemed to agree upon. Among the student-raised topics that surprised me was whether Mrs. Obama was justified to get choked up while speaking (How can she really be that upset? It never happened to her.). There was also talk about patterns of behavior and how that informs our opinions of people.

Naturally, the questions about Trump’s accusers and President Bill Clinton’s accusers took center stage. We walked that fine line with respect to due process and acknowledging the awful legacy of victim-blaming in cases of sexual harassment and misconduct. Students showed sensitivity when talking about the courage it takes for victims to speak up which made me proud. When we eventually made it back to the topics in the speech, I had a sense that it is easy for students to distrust the words of any political figure standing behind a microphone. Even with a message that is universally adaptable and above partisanship, a few students expressed indifference or dismay with some aspects of her speech. I was not prepared for that response.

Public Service Needs our Best Young People

Public service is getting a bad name. It concerns me that my students may view a run for elected office in a negative light. The very nature of this election reminds all of us that we need our best people wanting to serve in their communities.

We have spent so much time talking about heavy topics and national politics in class that I can see now that a pivot to local issues and political figures might help students in the long run. A devotion to public service is commendable and I am not sure I have imparted that to my students yet.

If you have ideas about how I can bridge this gap for students, please let me know. As the grandchild of a former mayor, nephew of a current mayor and son of a school board member I know the value of public service. Whether it is giving back as a volunteer or taking up a cause, I want to do help my students see and experience American values in the places they exist outside of national politics.

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