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Tuned In, Turned Off and Taking Action

Bitter Campaign Motivates Students to Get Involved

A dozen high school students were talking about the first presidential debate. They weren’t too impressed with Hillary Clinton, but even less so with Donald Trump.

“A lot of what he said was just lies,” said Ashley Martinez, who tracked Trump’s comments on a fact-check site.

In fact, the entire presidential campaign has been unimpressive, says Ashley and other members of Innovation Central High School’s Michigan Youth in Government Club, part of a statewide group that enacts a simulated legislature. As politically inclined students, they are uninspired by what they see as Trump’s fact-free rhetoric and Clinton saying what people want to hear.

Related Article: Students Need Civics More than Ever, Educators Say
Hillary Baker and Ellen Zwarensteyn have coached students in becoming so well-versed in government and civics that they take home national awards. Baker has led outstanding We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution teams, made up of high school students who rattle off informed opinions about different facets of the U.S. Constitution in front of lawyers, judges and professors. Zwarensteyn has coached award-winning high school debaters who argue different sides of complex policy…

“This campaign is very childish,” said Ashley, a senior whose political interests extend back to her election as freshman class president. “It’s more like a high school competition than an actual presidential campaign.”

From their after-school meetings at the Grand Rapids Public high school, to government classes in the suburbs, the divisive campaign is stimulating plenty of student discussion. Whether watching the debates or “Saturday Night Live” parodies of them, students are tuning into the election — both fascinated and repulsed by its nastiness.

For their teachers, it also presents a challenge: how to fairly frame such a highly charged campaign as a teachable moment about the American electoral process.

Adviser Daniel Morse hopes the bipartisan nature of Michigan Youth in Government will encourage students to be politically active — and not get turned off by this bitter campaign. Ironically, the election seems to be doing just the opposite, he said.

“I have never been asked so many questions by students regarding politics before,” said Morse, who teaches government and economics. “Some of my students (say), ‘These are the people that are the best and brightest candidates for our highest office?’ Maybe we need to get involved.”

Club adviser Dan Morse says he’s never seen such student interest in an election
Club adviser Dan Morse says he’s never seen such student interest in an election

Steering Clear of Divisive Rhetoric

The high heat of the campaign challenges teachers like Morse to bring the light of understanding into their classes. For some, it’s too hot to handle.

A spring survey of 2,000 teachers by Teaching Tolerance found more than 40 percent were hesitant to teach about the election. They reported anxiety among immigrant and Muslim students along with increased bullying, with more than half of respondents mentioning Trump.

Indeed, many were upset when a few Forest Hills students displayed a Trump sign and 13-star Betsy Ross flag at a football game against Ottawa Hills early this fall. The incident provoked outrage from GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal and elicited an apology from Forest Hills Superintendent Dan Behm.

As the campaign turned even uglier in recent weeks — including videotape of Trump’s boasts about groping women, WikiLeaks of Clinton campaign emails and increasingly combative debates – some teachers worried about bringing campaign rhetoric into the classroom that could offend or divide students.

At Rockford High School, government students recently held an election simulation as they have for more than 15 years. Students play the roles of the four major candidates, campaign managers, special interest groups and citizens. The two-week process culminated this week with a debate and vote.

This year more than ever, it was important to emphasize to students they are representing policy positions, not “being” the candidates, and to steer clear of some of the campaign’s inflammatory language, said Kyle Kennett, one of three government teachers leading the exercise.

“I don’t know if I want students just blatantly word-for-word repeating some of the things without context,” Kennett said. “Some things can be construed as extremely divisive.”

‘They’re Just Sounding like Kids’

This is the sixth presidential election Kennett has covered in his 20 years of teaching in Rockford, and he says the one students have been most interested in — as well as the most difficult to teach about. He’s talked to students about the increasing role of the media and the crucial difference between facts and mere assertions.

“Facts are facts,” he said. “But if we can’t agree on facts, how do we come to policy solutions?”

It’s been a challenge to encourage students to analyze candidates’ “very charged” rhetoric without offending some of them, Kennett acknowledged.

“I’ve always wanted to make it a safe and inclusive environment,” he said of class discussions, yet said students “need to think critically” about candidates’ statements. Trump’s rhetoric in particular has galvanized some students to speak up, adding “I have seen more women in class take Trump to task regarding his statements toward women.”

‘I have never been asked so many questions by students regarding politics before.’ — Dan Morse, government teacher

Senior Daniel Schneider, who portrayed Trump in the simulated election, said he mostly stayed away from his more controversial statements other than saying Clinton should go to prison. Although he personally leans toward Clinton, he said he’s been turned off by the name-calling and other unsavory elements of the campaign.

“I don’t agree with how they’re acting,” Daniel said. “These people should be leading our country, yet they’re just bickering and sounding like kids. It makes me want to get involved so I can reform it, but I don’t know. …”

Rockford government teacher Kyle Kennett says this has been the most difficult campaign to discuss with students he’s seen
Rockford government teacher Kyle Kennett says this has been the most difficult campaign to discuss with students he’s seen

We Can Do Better, Students Say

At the Innovation Central Michigan Youth in Government club, some students clearly want to get involved — and produce better results than they’re seeing now.

“This whole presidential campaign motivated me to learn more and to get more involved,” said junior Cierra Barrera, calling it “the most ridiculous campaign since ever.”

Josue Centeno said his club experience crafting legislation with students from across the state in Lansing last spring made him think about the way bipartisan politics should work. “That’s why we have to step up and make a change,” said Josue, a junior.

“The more we get involved, the more we can evolve to solve problems,” agreed junior Skyler Carter. “No matter what age you are, we should all come together as a nation and a city, be heard, be strong and be proud of what you’re saying to try to make this country better.”

Their discussion was like music to adviser Morse, who hopes the club will instill leadership and activism. “Maybe you can’t vote yet, but you sure can go volunteer,” he told the students. “You sure can knock on doors (and) make phone calls.”

As someone who once ran for local office, he wants his students to know they can make an impact. And he wants them to appreciate the U.S. Constitution preamble’s vision of “a more perfect union.”

“It’s important as a social studies teacher to reinforce the idea that there’s hope in the American system,” Morse said. “It’s certainly not perfect, but it never has been. That’s’ what we’re working toward.”

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Michigan Youth in Government

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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