Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez knew teaching about this presidential election would be difficult after she overheard two students who are Muslims talking about how they believed they would be forced to leave the country if Donald Trump were elected.
“Last year was very eye-opening,” Kirby-Gonzalez said about the conversation she heard on a field trip last school year. “It’s heartbreaking.”
It was then that the fifth-grade teacher at Mather Heights Elementary School decided not to include the presidential race in classroom discussions. Instead, her students discuss the California Senate race, local elections and state propositions.
Every four years, presidential elections give social studies teachers an opportunity to explain democracy and spark classroom discussions. But this year, the divisive and sometimes explicit nature of the presidential contest has left teachers wondering whether they should avoid the subject altogether.
While high school teachers seem inclined to discuss some of the campaign issues, those in elementary schools are treading carefully.
“I’m going to focus on the process, but not the debates and the rhetoric,” Kirby-Gonzalez said last week. “They did watch the California Senate debate, but the presidential race I feel – for my fifth-graders – has a lot of pieces that would make my parents uncomfortable.”
Kirby-Gonzalez, who also serves as a Washington Unified School District trustee in West Sacramento, knew she made the right decision when an audible sigh of relief came from the parents gathered for Back-to-School Night in August when she made the announcement. The Rancho Cordova magnet school is home to a diverse population of students that include many immigrants and Muslim students, she said.
California State University, Sacramento, assistant professor Mae Chaplin said student teachers at the university tell her about local schoolchildren who are fearful because of the election rhetoric. She and fellow professors are directing student teachers to the Teaching Tolerance website produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center for tips during this contentious election.
Chaplin tells student teachers to “look at the issues, not the candidates” and suggests that teachers strip the candidates’ names from transcripts of presidential debates and have students analyze the issues being discussed critically.
The election is causing anxiety for students across the nation, according to a recent survey of teachers conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Two-thirds of teachers who responded to the survey reported that Muslim children, children of immigrants and immigrants fear what will happen to their families after the election. More than 40 percent of the teachers who answered the survey are hesitant to teach about the presidential election.
Kirby-Gonzalez decided to forgo teaching about the presidential election in part because her school has efforts to stop bullying and teach students to be kinder to one another.
“They would get in a lot of trouble if they spoke to each other in the way we are hearing some adults speaking,” she said.
When eighth-graders at Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep brought up the wall between Mexico and the United States proposed by Trump, teacher Ashley Silas asked them, “How will that get done? What will be the implications if that happens? Is that something you agree or disagree with?”
The most important thing a teacher can do is create a respectful classroom climate, Chaplin said. Even the widely publicized 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump talking about grabbing and kissing women can be discussed if a teacher has established an appropriate climate in the class, she said.
Students in a government class at Valley High School in Sacramento felt comfortable discussing the tape after it aired on television, said teacher Barbara Burdette. Boys and girls in the class said they were offended and upset with the candidate’s words, she said.
“That was pretty controversial here,” said Deandre Stephens, a senior. “We talked about his personal views on women and then asked the women how they felt about it and how it would affect their decision. They were pretty disgusted.”
California middle school teacher Alesandra Sinistro said teaching about the presidential election is an important part of her eighth-grade U.S. history curriculum, but she limits discussion to each candidate’s stance on the issues and forgoes any discussion of the scandals.
“We acknowledge there are things that have gone on, but we don’t need to discuss them,” Sinistro said.
The presidential election isn’t the only race that has teachers struggling to keep their classes G-rated. Kirby-Gonzalez thought it would be safe to ask her fifth-graders to bring campaign fliers from local races to school to be critically analyzed by students. But she found herself hiding the attack ads aimed at Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who is running for Congress against incumbent Ami Bera in District 7, because of their adult content.
But some issues, even the most scandalous, are difficult to avoid.
“Every single person on social media is talking about this election,” said Asha Armstrong, a senior at Rio Americano High School.