A Need to Speak: Teaching About the 2016 Election

This teacher argues that educators can’t shy away from discussing the current political climate. Students need to learn how to navigate explosive, emotional conversations in ways that nudge the discourse back toward civility.


According to the Teaching Tolerance report The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools, nearly 40 percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded to TT’s election survey are hesitant to teach about the election. Some educators cite concerns about the students who fear being ostracized or even deported if certain candidates win. Other teachers don’t know how to handle the fact that students are repeating the hate-filled language they hear from candidates’ speeches and social media posts. Still other teachers, like me, feel they must discuss this election with students.

Here are a two of the strategies I have used to teach students the skills to decode what is being said. Focusing on these skills has helped my students come to realizations all their own. Kids who were enjoying the excitement that comes with blaming and bullying have pumped the brakes and thought a little more carefully.

Talk with students about “they” and “them.”

The use of “they” is a favorite campaign tactic. Candidates are making statements about what “they” do, how “they” are hurting our country. Sometimes “they” are Muslims. Sometimes “they” are women. Sometimes “they” are a particular minority or ethnicity. Sometimes “they” are the poor; sometimes “they” are the rich.

One quick exercise is to have students scan through the Twitter feeds of various candidates and count the number of times third-person pronouns are used. Have them search for those words in speeches and debates as well. Which groups are being replaced and generalized most frequently in their statements? 

Talk about the use of stereotypes and what happens when you categorize an entire group of people with such a broad brush. Ask students to do a little research and find examples of individuals who are from that larger group but do not embody the characteristic being attributed to all of “them.”

You need not do a lot of editorializing, as these patterns begin to speak for themselves.

Conduct formal debates in class.

Assign teams of two or more to opposing sides of the topics most frequently discussed in the campaign. Using a formal debate structure with constructive speeches, cross-examination and rebuttals makes students go through the process of researching the topic, formulating opinions and engaging in civil discourse. 

My seniors just finished doing this, and the results were outstanding. Students claiming immigrants were bad for our economy had to provide statistics to support that claim, which they found tricky. The opposition arguing for the economic benefit these workers bring to our country also needed support. They found a great deal. 

One of the greatest benefits came from the direct nature of cross-examination. Showing students a couple of clips from presidential debates—clips of candidates rolling their eyes as an opponent spoke or displaying body language that was aggressive or disrespectful—can provide a master class in how not to behave when the goal is an exchange of ideas.

We often stopped the questioning to discuss how to better phrase a question or response. We talked about the need to root responses in fact rather than opinion. We talked about the need to call out the opposition on empty and inflammatory rhetoric rather than simply throwing back your own. 

Students may be susceptible to some of the biased language they're hearing from presidential candidates, but teachers are in a position to show them a better path.

Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.

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