As California teachers return to the classroom this fall, many of them will be faced with the multiple challenges of how to deal with children’s responses to the No. 1 political issue in the United States: the increasingly troubled presidency of Donald Trump.
It will be hard for teachers to avoid the issue. Students will show up after a summer during which Trump ignited some of the most intense controversies and passions of his presidency.
The reality is that in the new communications age children come to school immersed in current events. Even for children who have no interest in news, it is hard to avoid seeing what Trump is up to through online platforms, apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and YouTube clips of monologues from comedians like John Oliver, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert.
One issue that surfaced over the summer and that is likely to be on many children’s minds is the prospect of a nuclear war triggered by Trump’s “fire and fury” threats to North Korea — comments which he has not only not backed off of, but continues to double down on.
Presumably teachers won’t have to dig up 1950s “duck and cover” playbooks, at least not for the time being. But they will need to be prepared to answer questions about the nuclear threat should children pose them. It would make more sense to be proactive and to encourage in-classroom discussions. Teachers clearly would want to assuage students’ fears as much as possible.
Another issue that has taken center stage this summer is Trump’s alliance with the so-called alt-right and defense of “beautiful” Confederate-era statues, along with his defense of the “fine people” among the Swastika-bearing, Heil Trump-spouting, torch-carrying protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. In a state as diverse as California, those comments are likely to trigger intense feelings among many students, especially those in middle or high school.
This is likely not only in progressive strongholds like Oakland and Berkeley, or Los Angeles and Santa Monica, but in other communities around the state where the Black Lives Matter movement is strong and gaining strength, as well as in strong pro-immigrant communities. Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of ignoring a court order to cease using racial profiling to detain undocumented immigrants, is likely to further inflame passions in those communities.
In addition, California has the highest number of undocumented immigrants in the nation, and many students are in a state of high anxiety about Trump’s immigration enforcement policies. Most children from immigrant families are U.S. citizens so they are not themselves subject to deportation, but an estimated 1 million children — 1 in 6 public school students — have family members who are. Compelling research shows that just the threat of deportation of family members has a negative impact on a child’s mental health and on his or her academic performance.
Then there is the ongoing issue of how teachers can compellingly respond to children tempted to model Donald Trump’s repeated falsehoods and misrepresentations of facts that have emerged as central characteristics of his presidency. How do teachers handle the fact that children are expected to be truthful and honest, learn facts and be accurate in their test taking, essay writing and class presentations, while their president demonstrates just the opposite behavior?
Finally, teachers will have to contend with questions from students about the flawed democratic system that allowed Trump to be elected in the first place. As the late Robert Dahl, one of most eminent political scientists of the last century, wrote a decade and a a half ago in “How Democratic is the American Constitution?” the most fundamental feature of a democracy is the principle of majority rule, based on the principle of one person, one vote. But the U.S. political system falls far short of enshrining that principle.
Nowhere is that more acutely felt than in California. Dahl described the constitutional guarantee of two senators from each state, regardless of how many voters elect them, as a “monumental form” of unequal representation.
“A Californian who moved to Alaska might lose some points on climate, but she would stand to gain a vote worth about fifty-four times as much as her vote in California,” Dahl wrote. “Whether the trade-off would be worth the move is not for me to say. But surely the inequality in representation it reveals is a profound violation of the democratic idea of political equality.”
In what Dahl called the “absurdity of the electoral college,” California’s vote also counts for far less. The state’s contributions to the popular vote also has made little difference in the election of two of the last three presidents. In California, 4.3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump — contributing significantly to Clinton’s significant edge in the national popular vote total of 2.8 million.
If there is any silver lining to the multiple layers of emotions that children will bring to the classroom this fall, it is that they present learning opportunities to dig deeper into the functioning — or non-functioning — of American government, and to surface students’ questions and anxieties.
Controversies have occurred throughout American history, and these are “the meat and bones” of any history class, said Maria Gallo of the Center for Civic Education, whose main office is in Calabasas in Southern California. “There is always going to be controversy, so you can’t shy away from them.”
At least teachers of civics and American government have an accepted forum along with established teaching techniques with which to address these issues. For those teachers who don’t, taking on the impact of the turmoil on the political landscape will be more perilous.
“Teachers are finding this to be a very difficult moment,” Gallo said. The willingness of teachers to initiate discussions about current affairs will depend on the population of a school, the community where it is located, and the level of support teachers get from the school’s administration. Ideally, Gallo said, “you should have an administration that supports teachers in learning how to deal with these issues, not just in the social studies department, but in all departments across the curriculum.”
To stimulate discussion on these issues, teachers need to create a structure that allows students to express divergent points of view. Otherwise classroom discussions could degenerate into an unhelpful free-for-all.
“Whole class discussions are hard to manage,” said Judy Pace, a professor of teacher education at the University of San Francisco, and author of “The Charged Classroom: Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching.” “It takes a lot of practice to reach a point where you can have a quality discussion with a full classroom of kids.”
For that reason, Pace said, as important as taking on current controversies are, teachers must think carefully about who their students are, and the potential harm that might be done to any one of them, when deciding what and how to teach.
But there are ways for teachers to raise issues that are difficult for both them and their students, and teachers shouldn’t duck them, Pace said. Some, like an approach called “structured academic controversy,” offer tested roadmaps for teachers. “Students need to think critically about which viewpoints represent democratic values, such as tolerance, equality and liberty for all, and which ones don’t,” she said. “Teachers can bring frameworks like human rights to get students to evaluate those different perspectives.” While doing that, she said, “teachers should be true to their values but not indoctrinate.”
“Our need for civic learning may be greater than ever in this time of political polarization at the national level, ongoing immigration, deep distrust in political institutions and turmoil in the news industry,” asserted a 2014 report titled “Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California,” on the need for more effective “civic learning” in the state.
The need is arguably far greater than it was three years ago. Clearly every class can’t become a discussion about Donald Trump. But the thoughts and feelings that children bring to the classroom that they are hearing from their parents, friends or classmates, or reading online about Trump and his policies will be hard to ignore. The challenge for teachers is to recognize and acknowledge them, and turn them into a learning opportunity for all students.
“It is easier not to talk about those things,” said the Center for Civic Education’s Gallo. “But teachers can’t afford not to become involved in one way or another.”
Correction: This commentary was updated on Aug. 30 to reflect the correct location of neo-Nazi rally referred to in the article. It took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, not North Carolina.