by Jim Lichtenwalter
ATHENS, GA. — Gillian Hull and Michelle Blume are seasoned veterans. The two elementary school teachers each have 16 years’ experience. While teaching isn’t always the easiest job, covering the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been more challenging than they ever expected.
Against the backdrop of Clinton and Trump’s warring presidential campaigns, Hull and Blume strive to teach the 96 students at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School’s advanced placement program about the democratic process. It’s an unenviable task. While alarming discussions of race and gender dominate the campaign and headlines, Hull and Blume, both white women, try to teach about the election in a school where 80 percent of students are either black or Hispanic.
“There is definitely some added pressure,” Blume said, “because there is just so much negative media.”
This is Blume’s second time and Hull’s first try covering an election in the classroom. They are both determined to give their students the best instruction possible. But the nature of this contest and its candidates have complicated things, and caution is needed.
“I’m taking a much more medium ground teaching this time around. The candidates are very much disliked, so you do have to approach it very differently,” Blume said. “A lot of my students have said ‘my parents are going to vote for for so-and-so because they don’t like so-and-so.’ It’s just a vote against somebody more than a vote for somebody.”
Hull teaches the kindergarten through third grade students, and focuses on the election process as whole, touching on the electoral college. Meanwhile, Blume instructs the fourth and fifth graders. While she discusses the process, she also looks at the issues being discussed in the campaigns. In particular, her students are focusing on the economy and jobs, terrorism, immigration and tax policy.
Both teachers are using the internet as part of the curriculum, but they struggle to keep up with breaking news.
“The internet definitely affects everything,” Blume said. “Day-to-day, things change, and stuff is fed through the internet so fast.”
To combat that, Hull and Blume censor the content students use for their assignments, using only approved sites that have been screened beforehand.
“This is to prevent them from being exposed to a whole bunch of stuff,” Hull said. “We find reliable sources and give those to them, rather than giving them free range on the internet.”
Yet the teachers permit students to share factual information that they’ve learned outside the classroom.
“Anything they bring from home is fine as long as its factual,” Hull said. “If they have something they want to share about the democratic process, that’s great.”
The teachers focus their lessons on facts, the election process and the issues. Discussions of a particular candidate, biases and opinions are banned from the lessons.
“I’ve told my students right from the get-go, we’re going to nip any of this favoritism,” Blume said.” We’re going to talk about the democratic process and the issues; we aren’t talking about all the side-bar stories.”
Inevitably, some preconceived notions are dragged into the classroom, but Blume and Hull quickly curtail them. They scrupulously avoid airing their own political beliefs to the students.
“I don’t want my opinions to come out when I teach,” Blume said. “I just want to teach.”
Despite some of the X-rated subjects in the news, and the precautions they’ve had to take, Hull and Blume say the run up to Election Day has been a great experience for them and for their students.
“It’s fun to watch them get excited about it,” Blume said. “I think they’re really enjoying themselves and having a great time.”