The Election, Our Schools, And The Power Of Words

Our guest author today is David Sherrin, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate in New York City and the author of The Classes They Remember: Using Role-Plays to Bring Social Studies and English to Life as well as Judging for Themselves: Using Mock Trials to Bring Social Studies and English to Life. In 2014, he was the recipient of the Robert H. Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice.

This election has led to confusion, and soul-searching, amongst many. As a social studies teacher, I find that even the most experienced of educators are scrambling to reassess our election pedagogy for this campaign. Every four years, we dust off a playbook in which we investigate candidates’ positions, political party platforms, and the workings of the Electoral College. This time, though, the Donald Trump campaign, especially its use of troubling language and the violence at his rallies, call for new teaching strategies to help students grapple with an emotionally-charged election.

One powerful framework for learners to engage with this campaign is to consider the power of words. History is replete with examples of dirty campaigns, including charges of murder, rape, and adultery; indeed, elections in the 18th and 19th centuries were often surprisingly nasty. Still, it is noteworthy that GOP candidates Donald Trump and Marco Rubio chose to insult each other’s physical characteristics, with reference to their genitalia. It is also remarkable that a U.S. presidential candidate, such as Donald Trump, would actually encourage followers physically to attack opposition protestors. As when analyzing historical campaigns, we ought to help students see that (most) candidates select their words carefully just as authors do. When we ask students to close-read the use of political rhetoric, through Trump’s choice of words like “punch” and “knock ‘em out,” we add a nuance and depth to our political discussions.

Adopting an historical lens also adds weight to the notion that language has power. For example, many commentators have compared the conditions surrounding this election, and especially Trump’s demagoguery, to the elections during Germany’s inter-war Weimar Republic (here, here, and here, for example) which brought Adolph Hitler to power. In my classes, studying the Weimar Republic has always been a necessary element in Holocaust education, since the period helps us try to understand why Nazi Germany happened and develop a complex cause-effect analysis. We see how many ordinary Germans responded to wartime failure, economic depression, inflation, and a millennia of simmering anti-Semitism by supporting a charismatic leader who blamed foreigners and offered the country greatness again. While facile historical comparisons are problematic, it can be enlightening for students to discover that these social conditions, so similar to our own, led many Germans to embrace an authoritarian and racist political party that implemented its Final Solution less than a decade after it came to power.

Dealing with the complexity of language and the issue of ethical responsibility is crucial for students, whether at the level of national discourse around Islamophobia or in the individual experience of teenage bullying. For example, my classes engage with the power of words through a mock Nuremberg Trial of Julius Streicher. Streicher’s culpability, and the nuance of responsibility, can be mainly found in the vitriolic language of his newspaper, Der Sturmer. Obviously, there is a big difference between Trump declaring “I’d like to punch him in the face.” and Streicher urging “total war that will give the death blow to the torturer of the world, Pan-Jewry.” We can, however, show students that assessing someone’s responsibility for violence through his or her words is hardly something novel to our generation.

As educators, we can also use the election and its historic parallels to wrestle with how to bridge the nation’s current and seemingly insurmountable political and cultural divide. It is easy to imagine that much of this gulf might stem from vastly distinct educational approaches. Half of the country seems to learn an American story in which our history of slavery, extermination of Native Americans, and discrimination against women means we have never lived up to our founding values. The other half seems to learn none of this dark history and instead hears only of a bygone American exceptionalism of great inventions, Manifest Destiny, and triumphs in the world wars.

Much of what we need is to cultivate a sense of perspective within our students to understand the complex interplay of virtue and culpability in U.S. history and empathy to recognize each other's stories. In my classroom, I do not ask students to agree with all views, but at least to understand them. In our political climate, we have become adept at “othering” and poor at empathizing. It has reached the point where it is truly difficult for secular liberals and conservative Christians to see each other as valued fellow citizens, with legitimate stories and aspirations. As one who operates in the liberal camp, I have no interest in my students empathizing with racism or xenophobia, but it is important for us to understand the outlook of well-meaning citizens who choose to overlook these aspects of Trump’s rhetoric and still vote for him for other reasons.

Teachers have many tools to cultivate a culture of listening, empathy, and understanding. Rather than teaching students to debate to win, many educators are shifting toward protocols, such as Structured Academic Controversy, which pushes students to hear each other’s positions and reach a middle ground, or Fishbowl Seminars, which strive for real conversation and listening around a complex question. Let’s ask them tough questions, such as “Is violence an acceptable form of political discourse?” or “How should the United States best respond to threats of international terrorism?” and use those formats for students to hear each other’s hopes and fears and arrive together at a nuanced position.

None of this work is easy for teachers, especially for those who are used to the structure of backwards planning and the control of talking about distant events from the past. Here, we must reflect on forces we don’t fully understand and reflect upon events that are unfolding, whose outcomes we cannot foresee. Teachers, especially those in tightly supervised districts, must weigh the risks of engaging with controversial political topics and the possibility of reprimand or even losing their jobs if they are seen as taking an open political stance.

In my practice, role-play is the go-to strategy for helping students deal with complexity and multiple perspectives. We best understand the positions of people unlike us when we push to see ourselves in their shoes and think like them. Within allegorical settings, we role-play topics as difficult as Weimar and early Nazi Germany so we can grasp how and why ordinary people took the terrible choices that led to the Nazi Party’s electoral plurality and then to the Holocaust. In fact, one of the key moments in that unit is when students role-play that election and vote on a platform based on their characters’ profiles. After experiencing the tumult of Weimar Germany, most characters vote for the symbolic Sizan (or Nazi) Party. They learn that the introduction of a dictatorship and/or a government that implements widespread human rights abuses can occur because regular people make choices that allow it to happen.

We can teach about the 2016 election, and future ones, by having students understand the candidates’ positions, while also helping them to examine the needs, goals, and voting patterns of our diverse citizenry. As important as it is to role-play the 1933 election, it might be even more instructive to role-play this one. That is, teachers can create 2016 role-play elections in which students would vote not just as themselves but also as other archetypal Americans. In addition to asking students to consider their own voting preferences (and the reasons for them), we can also encourage them to try to understand the political motivations of Americans who have vastly different experiences and outlooks from their own. Only by developing that sense of empathy and perspective can we hope, as educators, to begin to bridge the frightening political gulf that we face.


I enjoyed this post. Over the years as I found my personal 128teaching forte inside junior and senior level high school classes, I taught myself in the use of "structured controversy." It was the best way into the introduction of new lessons, and always guaranteed the largest student involvement/interest.