When you’re a middle school teacher, there will never be a dull moment. This is particularly true of 2016.
Setting the scene for only one example of the crazy, unpredictable phenomena that create the middle school experience: this past Wednesday (the one day I am able to eat my lunch in the peaceful solitude of my empty room while the school is at recess) a student burst through my door, positively wailing. He dramatically flings himself upon the couch, heaving with sobs. The quinoa chicken is clearly going to have to wait.
Taking a moment to steel myself for whatever it is I’m about to hear, I set aside lunch and gingerly approach the couch. My first attempt to speak with the child is abruptly met with a shockingly loud “BUT I AM NOT DONALD TRUMP!” and a subsequent burying of the head with several more sobs.
(Side note: If there is a proper way to deal with this situation, I would appreciate enlightenment)
After a bit of coaxing, the student is finally willing to explain why he was so profoundly upset. You see, he had been playing a game at recess – and he *may* have told a friend he was going to “wall him in” (they were playing some variation of tag) and his friend *may* have replied by calling him Donald Trump.
Never a dull moment.
By the end of lunch all was mended – but I was reminded of a struggle I’ve had as a teacher that has persisted since the launch of the primaries: how to teach 2016.
We know our students are being affected the this election cycle. The sheer amount of media frenzy, cultural references, advertisements, campaign slogans, picked up conversations, and swing-state candidate visits alone are enough to ensure every child has been influenced by the events of the 2016 election. But this generation has an entirely new set of mediums that are churning 24/7 to ensure they are constantly interacting with the campaigns: social media turns out memes and videos at breakneck speeds, Vines (may the medium rest in peace) turn entire issues, candidates, and speeches into six-second loops, and let’s not pretend our students aren’t seeing the same YouTube SNL skits, cable campaign commercials, and radio ads that we are. This has been an extraordinary election cycle, and as a middle school teacher, pretending it isn’t happening is not an option. At the same time, the challenge for all educators is to teach students how to think, not what to think. We must be constantly vigilant of our own biases in addressing current events – but outside of having students read reputable fact checks and offering zero comment, we are constantly at risk of accusations of political indoctrination and biased teaching – at best. George Cassutto’s article Civic Education in the Age of Clinton and Trump describes this tension quite well: “The emotionally heightened political atmosphere surrounding the 2016 presidential election has made teaching civics a minefield.”
So what to do about teaching civics and critical thinking as facets of digital literacy in this climate? Former SCOTUS Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has one possible solution: iCivics. A recent CNN blog details how Fmr. Justice O’Connor describes the importance of teaching civics. “You can make a difference if you know how to bring a particular area of concern to the attention of people who can make a change. Then you’re learning to be in a position where you can cause public bodies to take action, the public bodies that have jurisdiction over that particular area. Maybe it’s a city council, maybe it’s a town planning and zoning commission… maybe it’s a state legislature… You have to be knowledgeable.” To engage students she took civic literacy and gamified it – with engaging challenges where students try to win the White House, pass laws, manage court cases, and manage national issues from immigration to handling the federal budget!
When it comes to discussion of current events, Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, curates a trove of resources. Whether you are attempting to bridge the divide in countering bias, discussing immigration, tackling policies, or stepping back in time for more perspective, the site is dedicated to promoting meaningful conversation.
And if you have only a short bit of time to address a massive issue, give BrainPop a try! They even have an entire section of videos dedicated purely to discussing elections, including my personal favorite about how political beliefs are established and acted on! Each video runs between 3-6 minutes and additional resources can extend the conversation.
What resources are you using to Teach 2016?