Civics not controversy: Election lessons prove challenging this year


GREENFIELD — The hair on one and the pantsuit on the other are unmistakable.

Down one corridor in Eastern Hancock Elementary School, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — or rather, life-size mannequin likenesses of the 2016 presidential candidates — sit in a pair of little plastic chairs. Her bright green blazer stands out against a backdrop of various campaign signs; as does his famous hair next to the American flag-decorated table that sits between them.

Atop that table is a box and a stack of paper ballots awaiting young Royals to cast their votes in a mock presidential election — an election-year tradition hundreds of youngsters are participating in during the days leading up to today’s Election Day.

Lessons about the democratic process are an important part of history and social studies curricula every year; but presidential races make those teachings more palpable as students watch the messages in their textbooks come to life around them, local educators said.

This year’s heated presidential race has been a challenge for teachers, who say they’ve struggled to keep discussions in their classrooms centered on civics rather than candidates and controversy.

Primary elections, the Electoral College and constitutional duties of elected officials are some of the topics teachers have been covering with their students ahead of Election Day — while fighting to keep conversations about email scandals and accusations of sexual assault at bay.

Students in Eastern Hancock Elementary Schools’ essential skills class, an activity-centered program for students with special education needs, made life-size figures of Trump and Clinton out of donated clothes and recycled newspapers, teacher Melanie Smith said. They invited the district’s students, from kindergarten to high school, to cast ballots for their favorite candidate and have kept a secret tally of the totals in their classroom, to be released on Election Day.

For the most part, the funny figurines have helped keep any conversations about the election positive and light, Smith said. Teachers, students and even some parents have stopped by to cast their votes, admiring the students’ handiwork while sharing a good-natured laugh, she said.

And the students in Smith’s class learned crucial life skills while creating the Trump and Clinton mannequins, including cooperation, counting while tracking vote totals and recognition of the political figures, she said.

Across the county, students in Mt. Vernon’s eighth grade condensed an entire election cycle into two hours recently. In one afternoon, they conducted a mock primary election to choose two classmates to serve as candidates, who then campaigned before a general election, teacher Dean Falkenberg said.

Falkenberg and his fellow social studies teachers had students separate into political parties identified by purple and orange colors rather than the traditional red and blue that are used distinguish Republicans and Democrats. That decision was made purposefully so that students’ opinions about the real candidates were left outside the mock election, Falkenberg said.

If negativity were truly measurable, this year’s election might surpass the presidential contest in 1828 — when Andrew Jackson defeated incumbent John Quincy Adams — which is often referred to by historians at the dirtiest election in history because of the crude mudslinging that occurred, Falkenburg said.

Young minds aren’t immune to that colorful commentary, said Marisa Cocokios, another of Mt. Vernon’s eighth-grade social studies teachers. She’s heard students make comments about the more controversial aspects of this year’s race; and while it is interesting to hear her student’s take on certain issues, she has tried to steer conversations toward how messages in advertisements and on social media have impacted campaigns.

Despite the heated race, students — especially those voting for the first time this year — are eager to participate in the political process, teachers said.

About a third of the Kelsie Davenport’s government classes at Greenfield-Central High School will be voting in their first election this year, she said. Like her colleagues across the county, Davenport said she’s tried to keep her government lessons focused on political science. Her goal, in addition to teaching young voters about the branches of government, is to shape informed voters by helping students think critically about civil issues.

She’s kept a calendar of debate dates on a whiteboard in her classroom, and the next day she initiates conversations about fact-checking and plausibility of campaign promises. But she keeps her opinions out of it, preferring instead to let her students form their own, she said.

And when they do, she can’t help but smile while hearing them discuss their reasoning.

Standing in the hallway outside her classroom recently, Davenport listened as Greenfield-Central senior Maddie Wise explained that, after much consideration, she decided abortion was the most important political issue in her mind, and she’d chosen to vote for pro-life candidates.

Eighteen-year-old Wise, who cast an early vote for Trump ahead of Election Day, said she was compelled to go to the polls for the first time this year because she’s heard for so long from her teachers and parents about the importance of taking advantage of her right to vote.

Davenport said she’s heard this often from her students.

“I think they’re most excited to be part of the tradition.”