How N.H. Civics Teachers Handled a Presidential Campaign Unlike Any Other

Nov 4, 2016

Lebanon High School teacher Andrew Gamble leads a discussion on the presidential campaign.
Credit Michael Brindley

The presidential campaign is usually an opportunity every four years for students to study democracy in real time. But, by all accounts, this campaign has been anything but normal.

The adult themes and harsh rhetoric have been especially challenging for educators, who’ve had to figure out how to address these subjects in the classroom.

NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with educators across New Hampshire to see what’s different about teaching the presidential campaign this year.

In a classroom at Lebanon High School where the walls are covered with political memorabilia, teacher Andrew Gamble is leading a discussion on the presidential campaign.

He plays clip from a recent Donald Trump campaign rally: "I’m just thinking to myself right now, we should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump, right?"

Gamble asks the students for their reaction; there’s agreement that while Trump may have been joking, the remark feeds into a dangerous narrative.

“If you asked any one of those people in the crowd, ‘Would you like America to be a dictatorship?’ they would probably answer of course not or no. But what he just described there, that’s a dictatorship," says senior Nick Brandt.

It’s conversations like this which Gamble says makes teaching this presidential campaign unlike any other.

We discussed locker room talk. What does that look like? And the kids were very open and honest about what they say. - Lebanon High School teacher Andrew Gamble

Then there was the Access Hollywood tape that caught Donald Trump talking in vulgar terms about women.

Gamble chose to play an edited version in class.

"We do send out a permission slip saying we’ll be dealing with adult content in this class," Gamble said.

After watching the video, Gamble and a female teacher split up students by gender, and met with them in two groups.

"And we discussed locker room talk. What does that look like? And the kids were very open and honest about what they say.”

He says the boys admitted to using some inappropriate language at times.

“You know, they weren’t proud of the fact they said derogatory terms or they’ve used terms to describe women in negative ways, but they weren’t saying it was just boys being boys either. They thought deeply about it. But there was definitely a hard line in the sand of what you don’t cross.”

Political memorabilia covers the walls of Andrew Gamble's class at Lebanon High School.
Credit Michael Brindley

Across New Hampshire, educators agree this election has forced them to think differently about how they bring the presidential campaign into the classroom.

“It’s not something we’ve ever seen before," says Greg Leonard, who has taught government at ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough for more than 20 years. “Because generally speaking, politics can get pretty nasty and down and dirty, but this year it seems like it’s at a different level and a different pitch."

So, what do you do when the content of the campaign is something traditionally reserved for mature audiences?  Leonard says you just have to take it head on.

“I suppose to a certain extent it makes it a little more exciting and different because it is so unique, but my only concern is that it would turn voters away and that young people would be less inclined to vote in the future.”

But, it’s also been an opportunity to dive in to new topics.

Students in his class spent time exploring the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power after Trump said he may not accept the outcome of the election.

“So we look at it from that perspective, and then we look also at some of the other elections that were in question, particularly the election of 1824 with Jackson and John Quincy Adams, and of course in 2000 with Bush versus Gore.”

But there are teachers who say they’ve avoided some lessons because of the campaign’s tone.

Like Cynthia Young, who teaches social studies at Portsmouth High School.

I haven't chosen for example to have a couple of kids play the candidates and do a debate that way...I won't allow vitriol in my classroom. - Portsmouth High School teacher Cynthia Young

"I haven’t chosen for example to have a couple of kids play the candidates and do a debate that way. Whereas that’s something we often do during primary season. Because I want all of the kids to be involved but also the vitriol of the campaign, I won’t allow vitriol in my classroom.”

But students are still learning about the campaign, and Young says the discussions have remained civil. 

“They are able to have conversations and they are able to disagree on issues and to feel strongly about it, and not to tear each other down personally. They give me a lot of hope about the future of our political process.”

Portsmouth High School had its own controversy this week, when a teacher was removed from the classroom after dressing up as Donald Trump and dancing to an expletive-laden song in front of the class.

Greg Leonard, the teacher at ConVal, says the heightened attention on the race brings added pressure on educators to not let their own personal politics seep into the classroom.

“I always ask my students at the end of a government class which political party they think I belong to. And I know I’ve done my job right if a third say I’m a Democrat, a third say I’m a Republican, and a third say I’m undeclared.

For teachers like Evan Czyzowski at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, the goal has been to turn the negative tone into a learning opportunity.

Students at Lebanon High School discuss the presidential campaign.
Credit Michael Brindley

"We’ve had to constantly redirect students back to conversations about issues, and not personal attacks. That’s what’s different about this campaign. And unfortunate," Czyzowski said. "But again, our role, or my role as an educator, is not to teach kids what to think but how to critically analyze an issue. So I want to teach them what is perhaps the positive ways about going into a campaign, rather than what attack you can have on a candidate.”

For the most part, Czyzowski says the class has gone on as normal: students are playing the roles of candidates and running campaigns, leading up to the school’s mock presidential rally this week.

But as for how students are reacting to this unusual campaign?

"I don’t know that they have anything to compare it to. They’re just sort of coming of age into this system, so I don’t think that they’ve had a chance to be cynical about it, so I would think they’re positive about it by virtue of the fact that they’re taking the class and want to learn more. And that makes me hopeful as an educator.”

I'm a little bit terrified. It's probably one of the most ridiculous elections we've ever had. And it's the first one I get to vote in. - Lebanon High School senior Olivia Smith

Back at Lebanon High School, students here say they’re not sure what to make of this election.

Olivia Smith is a senior.

"I’m a little bit terrified. It’s probably one of the most ridiculous elections we’ve ever had. And it’s the first one I get to vote in. I feel a lot better about Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. I’m just not sure because there’s just so many lies and I don’t know what is true.”

Most of the students here say they’re supporting Clinton, but some say they’ve tried to understand why so many people are backing Trump.

That’s why senior Emily Bourne went to a Trump rally earlier in the campaign in Claremont.

“I like to see what every side can bring. I knew that I wasn’t going to be very impressed with Trump, but I thought I should go anyways because it was an opportunity.”