by Saleen D. Martin

High school classrooms are buzzing during the 2016 Presidential Election.  But even teachers who revel in the students’ enthusiasm are keenly aware that the discussions need to stay civil.

The overheated climate of this year’s race means teachers need to be especially cautious about moderating debate, says Dr. Jennifer James, an associate professor in UGA’s Department of Educational Theory and Practice. In addition to being a professor, James has taught preschool through fifth grade and worked with many social studies teachers.

“Teachers need to work to establish an environment in which students feel they can risk sharing their thoughts and opinions, a space where ideas are challenged, but people aren’t personally attacked.”

“Though it will look different at different grade levels, I think civic education requires that all students are invited to think about what it means to participate in an election.” said James.

Alex Yates has taught American government classes, AP and regular sections, to 9th graders at Clarke Central High School for two years. He encourages his students to talk politics.

“The only rule about discussions is they have to be respectful of each other.  It’s fine for them to disagree with each other.  I encourage that a lot,” he said.  “But they have to tell them they’re wrong and why.”

Yates’ classroom is a safe place for students to express their fears.

“Especially my non-white students—my Hispanic students.  They have a very legitimate concern that their families could be torn apart and that a candidate so openly can advocate for that,” he said.

Across town at Cedar Shoals High School, Joanna Arnold also teaches 9th grade American government. She’s been doing this for two-and-a-half years and uses and other news websites to kick off discussion.

Arnold likes Newsela because it is easy to navigate and allows students to keep up with relevant topics.  The site, she said, has “tabs that are specifically pertaining to government.”  It encourages news literacy and builds reading comprehension by allowing students to change the articles to the reading level that “is easiest for them to understand,” said Arnold.

Some articles are in Spanish, which is useful for her multicultural classroom.

Shemeda Jones is another 9th grade American Government teacher at Cedar Shoals, and her students discover how campaigns and elections work by carrying out interactive, hands-on exercises.

Last year, her AP class held a mock election.  Students designed tissue boxes to incorporate the ideas and policies that they wanted to implement.  Jones said the students “were the candidates and they had to include all of the elements that go into an election.” She said “they had to get a campaign.”

Jones strives for balance in classroom discussions.  “We have to be unbiased. I teach them to have an open mind and to be able to be politically tolerant,” she said.

Political engagement, she believes, is relevant to what students experience each day.

“Every situation that I think about in politics, I have at least two to three students in here that have probably been affected by it:  LGBTQ, affordable health care, Black Lives Matter,” she said.

Even though they aren’t old enough to vote in this election, students are excited about voicing their political concerns.  “I don’t really have to make the case that it applies to them or they should care,” said Yates, “It kind of makes itself.”