The Challenges of Teaching Civics in the Age of Trump
I teach elementary school students, 5th graders to be exact. I spent many years as a secondary school history and humanities teacher as well. In all of my 28 years of teaching, it has been a firm rule of mine to leave my political opinions at home. I strive to avoid, explicitly or implicitly, infusing my personal politics into my teaching. I want to leave space for student to have their "ah has" and to develop their own critical thinking based on thoughtful consideration of related information and their subsequent evolving understanding of an issue.
My 5th graders study the foundations of American government. We spend the entire year in a global citizenship study. We have many discussions about our political system: how elections work as well as the differences between the two major political parties. We look at poverty as an issue of opportunity rather than a measure of talent or character. Most importantly, we learn about perspective—how to recognize our own point of view as a reflection of our own subjective experience. I try to keep my political views out of the classroom, particularly during election years (once I even removed a bumper sticker from my car after a student mentioned seeing it in the school parking lot).
But the other day I broke my rule. One of my students brought up some of Trump's ideas about immigration and I immediately realized that we could not discuss them without looking at Trump's political positions in a more wholistic way. It was clear that my students knew just enough about Trump's opinions to make him a powerful and charged topic, but not enough to understand him in a broader context. And as their teacher, talking objectively about Trump seemed impossible. Consequently, I made the decision to allow my personal views enter into our classroom conversation.
Four Reasons I Decided To Teach About Trump
- Immigration: We are currently reading Enrique's Journey (the young adult version) by Sonia Nazario, a true story about the journey of a Honduran teenager who makes a harrowing journey to reunite with his mother in the United States. Enrique's story explores the painful complexities of illegal immigration and the dire choices people must make when faced with poverty and lack of opportunity. Some of my current and former students come from hard-working families who have recently immigrated from Mexico and other parts of Latin America due to economic or political challenges. My students need to know that it is not OK for someone with a chance of being our president to say that Mexico intentionally sends us their "bad ones". It is fundamentally untrue, but it is also mean-spirited and hateful.
- Racism: How can I hide behind my attempt at objectivity while a presidential front runner is regularly and directly quoted in the media as blaming crime on blacks and Latinos, or threatening to ban all Muslims from the U.S. because they are dangerous and "hate us" (by us he means the United States). By 5th grade, my students are expected to question these biased generalizations and shallow judgments. How else to describe Trump's conviction that an entire religion could hate an entire country?
- Bullying: Donald Trump is an unapologetic name-caller. He belittles people, particularly women, based on their appearance and other qualities that are out of their control. Our school's core values are respect, responsibility, and compassion. Name calling is not tolerated. Trump's public behavior and words on the campaign trail violate all our core values and many of our school rules.
- Freedom of Speech: When Trump incites the attendees at his rallies to go after individuals who disagree with him, we all need to pause and say this is not okay. Trump's disdain for free speech (aside for his own), and his disrespectful language and encouraged aggression for anyone who opposes him is outside acceptable cultural norms. Our democracy is based on civil discourse. By not naming this departure from cultural and political expectations allows him to dangerously lower an important standard.
Simply put, I broke my rule because Trump's behavior transcends party politics. His hateful words have distinguished him as a topic for class discussion because our conversations are not about who should win the presidency, but how presidential candidates should comport themselves on the campaign trail. My students need to know that Trump's behavior is beyond historical precedent. Even if polls indicate there is support for his politics of hate and divisiveness, it is important for me to assure my young students that many adults know what they know: encouraging cruelty and cultural division is unacceptable at school—and a real danger to our political process.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on March 5, in Orlando, Fla.