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Teaching Election 2016

Credit WCQS
Hendersonville Middle School Teacher Kelly Deese and Student Teacher Casey McCall engage students in a discussion about civil discourse.

The political science taught in textbooks has always been a bit removed from the politics practiced in the real world.

But this year’s out-of-the-ordinary presidential election has presented a particular challenge for teachers who are trying to square lessons with the 2016 campaign as it’s unfolded.

WCQS's Helen Chickering has been spending time in the classroom in Henderson County, where students have been learning about the election process.

She talked with High School Students, some who will be voting for the first time and visited a Middle School classroom holding a discussion on civil discourse in a year where that has often been lacking on the campaign trail.

Donald Trump, “And then of course we have crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary folks.”

“What do we call that, when two people can disagree, but they can speak nicely to each other?” Kelly Deese, Social Studies Teacher at Hendersonville Middle School asks her class.

Hillary Clinton: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call a basket of deplorables, right?”

“It’s this word.  Civil. Discourse," says Deese.

Seventh Grade Social Studies Class at Hendersonville Middle school.  It’s mid-September, just over a week before the first presidential debate.

Deese: "What is Civil Discourse?"

"They are citizens disagreeing, but in a respectful way." Answers a student.

Teacher Kelly Deese is starting off her series of lessons on Election 2016, with a discussion about civil discourse.

Helen: Has this been a more challenging year to teach these topics compared to other presidential elections?  

"I would say it is. It’s just a real delicate dance all the time, making sure kids are informed and not bringing up more than  they need to know for their age, " says Deese. 

"Loud and clear please," Deese instructs the class.

For this lesson, Deese stepped back into history. 

“But should people adopt a form of government that they believe needs amendment?” recites a student.

Students are reading a play about the Constitutional debate.

“It plagues me to disagree so strongly.” Cites another student.

“How would you say these two disagreeing men are speaking to each other?” asks Deese.

“It’s like a non-heated argument, they are having this conversation with respect to one another.”  Answers a student.

“It was so beautiful to go to those original documents to see how they could discuss things civilly” says Deese.   

“The one thing I couldn’t stand is to see these people constantly going at each other’s throats, "says Student Teacher Casey McCall, who is getting some good experience this election season.

HC: What do you hope students will get out of this?  

“Honestly, just that they understand it. “ explains McCall, “That they understand both the ways that how their political system works but they also know how to conduct themselves.  It is not always as cut and dry as A and B, but there is always a little bit of middle ground and they need to learn how to try and find that middle ground.”

Lessons that would become more challenging as debate season got underway, We checked back in on the class in mid-October. 

HC: Have you watched any of the debates?

“Yes, I have watched a bunch with my family,” says seventh grader Cayden Coggins, “ I don't think it's very, civil. “

“They just seem to insult each other a whole lot,” says  classmate Peter Garrison, “Which I don’t think is very good. “

Krizia Melendez agrees, “There is pressure on them, so there’s, you sort of like, you sort of want to put the other person down to build yourself up. But I don’t think it is right thing to do “

“It definitely seems like they have been disrespectful to each other,” says Lucas Crowe.

Students also had advice for the candidates.  “To make a better election, they should both be nicer to each other,” says Wesley Robinson.

“Donald Trump, as he says himself, he has no filter, “ says  Lily Dever, “I think he could use sitting in this class and learning about this. “

A few days later, we’re a few miles down the road at North Henderson High School.

“Overall, How did the debate compare to the first two? “  asks teacher Kyle Pope who is hashing out the last debate with his Civics and Economics Honors Class

So Trump's temperament was toned down a bit. Is that a good thing for him or a bad thing?" asks Pope, “ Hillary.  How did she do last night?”

Student: “She smiled too much.” 

Credit WCQS
North Henderson High School teacher Kyle Pope discusses the last presidential election with his Civics and Economics Honors Class.

HC: What’s it like teaching election 2016?

Pope: “It’s complex, in the sense that there is not just language, but even policy that can anger some people. We have a very large Hispanic population at this school and obviously immigration has been a big issue.   So It’s trying to balance those passions among the students with some of the more angry rhetoric that has been going around.”

“ I think it will be a crazy election night for sure, one of the craziest in history,” says Senior Ezra Morrison, “ It does not help that we have one candidate who says he will not accept if he loses the election and one candidate that seventy percent of the nation says they wouldn't trust. “

HC: " Where do you get your election information?"

“I go online, I try to look mostly at statistics and stay objective, “ says Morrison. “ I go to sources as liberal as the Huffington Post and as Conservative as Breitbart News”

“Donald Trump, I like how he doesn’t care and he’s like real,” says Senior Elizabeth Serrano, “He has no filter, but it hurts him.  I’m Hispanic, and what he says about illegal immigrants, I feel really offended.”  

“I don’t like Hillary Clinton either, says Serrano, “ but I do like how she doesn’t let Donald Trump insult her and she defends herself.”

Senior Ely Ledford, “I think it has also become an election about personal stuff, Trump and the 2005 audio that they found. The candidates have been looked at a lot more closely. Hillary with the emails.  So trustworthiness has also played a big part in this election.”

HC: You’ve had some pretty good classroom discussions, lots of opinions ‘

Kyle Pope, “That’s my favorite part about the job, hearing where the students are coming from, what they are thinking about, having these different perspectives and then having them engage one another civilly.  Hopefully that is a lesson they take away, it’s not one that is being modeled for them, very well I don’t believe, right now.”

“I feel like this is more of a high school popularity race than it is a national election,”  says Senior Bailey Allen.

HC: What would you like to hear?

“I just want to hear, without feeling the need to completely like crap on the other candidate, just straight policy, like here's how I feel.” Says Allen.  

Bryan Moore, is one of two seniors in the class who will  be voting for the first time.

HC: Have you made your decision yet?

“No, I haven’t made my decision, says Moore,   “I lean more toward Clinton, because she’s democratic, but Trump is still likely, I might vote for him too.

First time voter Martin Padron is also on the fence.

“I don’t know, I just don’t feel comfortable about this election, “ says Padron, “ It’s really hard looking at options we have here.”

HC:What lessons are you preparing for post election?

“Just that they understand their responsibility as citizens to stay informed, not to use one source, but look at multiplies sources,” says Pope, “Don’t just like for sources you agree with, see what the other side is saying, and take it to heart.” 

“ I’m from one political party, my husband is from another and I always tell kids, I’ve been married 21 years and we have children to show for it," notes Deese, "You can have civil discourse even in your home and disagree on things, but still want to get to the same place.  You are just going to take different roads to get the to same place.”

Lessons these teachers wish they'd seen more of  during the 2016 campaign. 

This story originally aired as part of the WCQS 2016 Election Special which can be heard in its entirety here.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.