Every four years, social studies teachers across America are blessed with a presidential election.
The bombardment of news, freshly posted yard signs, and impossible-to-ignore social media campaigns give us the perfect excuse to extol the merits of learning history. “Look whatʻs happening!” we cry. “You have to understand it!”
I always get a little jubilant watching democracy in action, and forcing unwilling 14-year-olds to watch as well. My class re-enacts the election process from primaries to Electoral College and we pore over candidate biographies and issue sheets to try to help them become better informed about the election they cannot participate in, but that could so deeply impact them.
But like every other facet of this year’s election, the presence of Donald Trump has changed everything in the classroom. It may just be one of the best things to happen to me as a teacher.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas. At least this year, students have no problem naming the Republican front-runner.
Unlike previous cycles, students can actually name a front-runner, and actually know something about him. They recognize him instantly and almost all have formulated an opinion on his issues.
As much as I hate to admit it, in the early stages I handled Trump’s campaign in my classroom the same way most analysts did: a write-off. I assured my students there was no way he could win. Smugly pointing out his less-than-stellar performance in the Iowa caucuses, I smoothly declared that Marco Rubio would emerge from the Republican scrum, barring an act of God.
The proverbial lightning bolt came a week later when Chris Christie rocked Rubio so hard with questions that Rubio started skipping like a Discman. I used that simile in class and my students silently stared, but they laughed all the same at Rubio’s repeated rhetoric.
In an election where no one really knew what was going on or what would happen, I was learning along with my students.
Despite only winning one-third of the votes, Trump marched on. I flustered as state after state started falling into the Trump column. All my experience as a political scholar was out the door.
My students were even more stunned. Trump was recognizably a bully and he was getting his way. When was someone going to step up and stop him? Where was a teacher when the GOP candidates needed one? All their experiences on fairness and karma were out the door as well.
Trump’s candidacy brought out an insecurity common among teachers: not knowing. This fear is especially prevalent in history teachers; we are supposed to act as a human Google, answering each students’ questions utilizing our vast resource of knowledge.
But that had to be put aside. There had to be a new way to look at this. In an election where no one really knew what was going on or what would happen, I was learning along with my students. In teaching jargon, I moved from being an instructor to a facilitator.
This transition challenges the common picture of the classroom: teacher lecturing while students scribble notes. It requires conversation, which teachers often do not get because we have been studying the content longer than our students have existed.
With an orange, flouncy haired narcissist destroying the credibility of a political party, we had a common ground we could all learn about together.
The class debate grew as the Republican field shrank. I set aside whole periods to discuss demagoguery and compared Trump’s rhetoric to 1930s European nationalists.
I even had an administrator observe a discussion on dictatorships, and the students turned the topic to Trump. The principal was intrigued, and praised the students for sighting this fresh connection.
Besides assisting my teaching strategies, it has been a refreshing change of pace to see the level of interest that the Donald has reaped. Instead of convincing my students that one politician is better than another because of inch-wide differences in advanced policy, they have an adversary.
Trump’s rhetoric deepens the generation gap; his intolerance toward other ethnicities and religions flies counter to the years of anti-bullying messages they’ve received. A student wrote in a reflection that she cannot believe her adult relatives support him.
For another thing, his campaign strategy is one the students recognize: click-bait. Trump understands the news cycle of the digital age; it is not about what you say, it is how many people click to see what you said. If all the news anchors are talking about the inflammatory quip, they cannot discuss the policy behind it.
A student hypothesized that Trump may be the next step in the progression of politicians and communication. Roosevelt had radio, Kennedy had television, Obama had Facebook. Perhaps Trump is the next evolution: hits and clicks. In the era where anyone can quantify their popularity based on how many Instagram followers they have, why have other politicians not embraced the art of the Retweet?
With Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropping out of the Republican race recently, students have moved their conversation from “what if” to “when” Trump wins the nomination. Some wonder if their parents — and me — will follow through on threats to move to Canada. More far-sighted individuals worry about what this means in terms of climate change policy, something island-dwelling teenagers are very aware of.
But my favorite reaction was when a female student said, at the end of class: “I hope Trump gets elected. I want to see what would happen. Would everyone get angry and actually try to change things?”
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