How Greenwich educators are tackling 2016 politics in the classroom
GREENWICH — In this election year of lewd sexual comments, email scandals, tax returns and baskets of deplorables, the partisan divide, perhaps inevitably, has reached its way into Greenwich classrooms.
Mirroring the larger world around them, students are engaging in political debate in ways teachers haven’t seen before, leaders of civics, government and history classes said in recent interviews.
In a recent Stanwich School advanced placement government class, what began as a thoughtful analysis of news websites for political messages and bias quickly spiraled into testy debate.
“Why is Trump taking so much heat for this locker room talk that so many men say, yet nobody’s really focusing on how Bill Clinton actually did something?” asked senior Michelle Wakim. “He actually had affairs.”
“Isn’t Hillary Clinton running for women, and isn’t it kind of diminishing what she is running for that she hasn’t divorced Bill Clinton?” she added.
“You could say the opposite too,” objected senior Izzy Nelson. “She stayed in the marriage, which is what some people believe you should do.”
For teachers, managing these kind of exchanges in the classroom can be difficult.
“You have to work to get students to distinguish between the candidate and the personality and the issues and the policies,” said Upper School history teacher Chris Hughes, who calmly mediated the above conversation. “That can be a challenge.”
The bulk of the job is “making sure kids express themselves appropriately and respect each others’ opinions, and making sure they have accurate information,” said Hughes. “Sometimes they repeat something that’s inaccurate ... And (the job is) really just helping them make sense of all this with critical thinking.”
Hughes, as well as teachers at Greenwich High School, Greenwich Academy and Sacred Heart Greenwich, said they don’t give their own political opinions in class. They try to concentrate on clarifying the political process or issues for students, or helping them to analyze the influences on a political viewpoint or event.
In Karen Boyea’s honors civics class at Greenwich High School, Boyea focuses students on learning party positions and debating those platforms.
But this year, perhaps more than ever, students are veering into political arguments sprung from the headlines.
“There’s something new every week,” junior Hannah Fox said about Trump’s lewd remarks about women during a recent presentation on the Republican Party’s positions on health care. “I think Donald Trump has a lot to say about things nobody really cares about to be quite honest.”
In a seventh-grade history class at Sacred Heart Greenwich last week, the conversation turned to party unity.
“What if the party turns against the candidate?” Charlotte Winston asked, just days after news broke that House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he was “sickened” by Trump’s remarks and several conservative House members pulled their support for their party’s nominee.
“Like what is happening now?” said teacher Kelly Bridges. “It’s uncharted territory.”
Uncharted territory is a good way to describe much of the 2016 election cycle.
“There hasn’t been anything quite like this in American history,” said Hughes, from Stanwich. “I think (students are) trying to make sense of it like anyone else.”
“It’s incredibly complicated. I think it’s more complicated than it’s ever been,” agreed Mark Feiner, associate head of schools at Greenwich Academy, who is co-teaching a course called Today in the News this year. “You’re wrestling with politics and partisanship and wanting to reach all the kids, and our role as educators is not to preach in any way and not take partisan stands, but as an educator you are also trying to ...”
Feiner paused, struggling to find the right words.
“You don’t want to take no stand on anything,” he said finally. “To take a stand that sexual assault is wrong, to take a stand that the way we speak about each other matters is not partisan. This election has made some of that complicated because it could polarize you and it could polarize you on issues that should not be polarizing.”
Feiner’s co-teacher, Melissa Anderson, said many Greenwich Academy faculty members met to discuss how to handle politics in the classroom this fall.
“One teacher found a great analogy,” she said. “He said there are open issues and there are closed issues. The open issues are the ones that feel partisan right now. Closed issues are issues of how we treat each other, issues like sexual harassment, issues like racism that exist and we need to lean into as teachers.”
Many teachers in Greenwich said they are noticing more student interest in politics this year than ever before.
“They are seeking it, they really are,” said Anderson. “They want to know if this is OK, no matter what side they’re on or what they’re hearing.”
Bridges said of her seventh-grade class: “The girls are very excited to talk. They hear so much at home, so much on the news. They actually do watch the debates. They have a lot to say about it.”
“We had a kid say that before he stepped into this class, he had never touched a newspaper,” said Anderson. “I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily more informed, they are certainly more aware.”
“They are aware of the tabloid elements of it and what’s being said on late night TV and on John Oliver,” said Feiner.
As to the sexual nature of much of the news concerning this election, teachers said students may be less shocked than their parents.
“At this point, nothing really surprises them,” said Boyea. “This is just the latest.”
Teachers reiterated that they try to stick to the facts and use appropriate language when it comes to these conversations.
At all schools, teachers said they had a broad spectrum of political views represented in their classes. But many also have noticed that their students aren’t excited about either Trump or Clinton.
“I don’t know that the kids feel all that invested, truthfully, in either candidate,” Boyea said. “It’s very different than it was eight years ago with Obama.”
Regardless, students, at least high schoolers, are beginning to step out from the shadows of their parents’ opinions and develop their own views.
“Developmentally, on all topics, not just politics, what you see in the adolescent years is that movement over time toward the development of one’s own sense of self, sense of the world and sense of relationship to the world,” said Feiner.
GHS junior Fox said she thought forming a political opinion was a kind of “coming of age.”
In spite of her parents’ views, “I’m finding myself becoming an Independent,” she said. “I don’t like either candidate very much to be honest.”