You can’t say this presidential election hasn’t been interesting.
The escalating rhetoric — from Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” to the recently released graphic commentary from Donald Trump about sexually assaulting women — has taken the spotlight.
But educators are trying to focus on the real issues of the election rather than keep up with the political he-said-she-said banter.
Leslie Kornsgold, associate principal of secular studies at Abrams Hebrew Academy, teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies.
Every four years, they have an eighth-grade election project for which students choose a candidate and write position papers, advertisements and a debate analysis.
“In seventh grade they learn about American government, so they’re pretty fluent. And then this gives them the opportunity to really see it in real-life terms,” she said.
Kornsgold tries to conceal her personal opinions, which has become somewhat difficult because “when I talk about why people might be voting against Donald Trump, and then I have to say, ‘This is why people might be voting against Hillary Clinton,’ in my mind, they’re not necessarily equal reasons for not supporting a candidate. But I try to present to them that there are reasons people are supporting each candidate.”
The 2005 recording of Trump objectifying women was released on a Friday, but Abrams was off for the holidays for two days. So as of press time, Kornsgold hasn’t had an in-depth classroom discussion on it, but they’re getting to it next week.
“The kids will drive the conversation in terms of where we go, but they’re just eighth-graders. And even the ones who come from homes that are very open … the fact of the matter is they are really still very young,” she said. “So my goal will be to lift the conversation up to the political process and how people make choices and media covers things — more of a general analysis of what’s going on than getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the candidates.”
The children have written papers on NATO, the environment and America’s stance on Israel, but, frustratingly, haven’t heard these topics discussed in depth by the candidates. Still, they are engaged by the process.
“They’re only required by me to watch one debate,” Kornsgold said. “Every single kid has watched both debates, and they’re planning on watching the third one because it’s reality TV.”
Rabbi Ira Budow, the director at Abrams, said students ask him what he thinks of the election, but it’s difficult to answer when “no side is clean.”
“I basically said, without taking any sides, that it’s a tremendous disappointment what’s going on in America,” he said.
He’d like to provide them with better role models, which is why he’s pleased that Josh Shapiro, who is running for attorney general, is coming to visit Abrams.
“What we’re doing is something positive,” Budow said. “We’re showing somebody that one can be proud of instead of wallowing in the dirt. I don’t want to associate my school with sleazy politicians.”
Sharon Levin, head of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, said teachers try to be evenhanded in the way they present information.
“Our students are kind of old enough to grapple with the issues,” she said. “It’s part of our mission to develop and prepare our students for the citizenship roles that they’ll take on the national scene, the world scene and, of course, the Jewish scene.”
This past spring, Barrack held a daylong political conference and a mock Republican Party convention (the mock party is the one that’s not in power). Students held debates and represented candidates.
“Jeb Bush actually won the Republican primary here,” she laughed, “which kind of made sense back then.”
Now the school is continuing its attention on the election. Students are representing Clinton, Trump and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, and will even cast a schoolwide vote, whose results will be announced Nov. 7.
Levin, who also teaches Advanced Placement government, said she’s “teaching the underpinnings so the students understand why they hold the positions that they do.”
She makes sure her students look at the pundits from different sides and read articles in different newspapers so they are prepared to speak and argue from a knowledgeable position.
She hasn’t had to make debate-watching mandatory, either.
“I don’t have to assign them watching a debate — they wouldn’t think of not doing it,” she said.
“We don’t teach you what to think. We try to teach you how to think, and to think critically about the issues,” she continued. Between “the 11-year-olds and the 18-year-olds here, [they] really are into it.”
But like the students at Abrams, Levin’s students are also frustrated by the lack of depth in the campaigns.
“That’s what we’re trying to have students look at — what are the real issues here and why, in a country like ours, have things disintegrated into discussing what might be considered scandalous on both sides,” Levin said. “We’re not going to go into what may have been touched or might not have been touched, or any particular body parts — that’s certainly not [for] a sixth- or seventh-grader. But I think it’s important for us to make students aware [of the issues].”
Overall, Levin is proud that the school and its students are so actively involved and informed.
“Some of the political pundits say, ‘Election time is better than Christmas morning.’ Well, obviously, Christmas morning doesn’t mean anything to me,” she laughed, “but it’s better than my birthday. And the enthusiasm here in school is incredible, and also there will be no child who isn’t in the position to have a real discussion with his or her parents, grandparents or siblings.”
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