Constitutionally Speaking Primary Civility

Primarily Uncivil: New Hampshire Teachers Struggle to Teach Civil Discourse in Face of Disrespectful Political Climate

Even with the New Hampshire primaries come and gone, there is no shortage of interest in the presidential races here in the state. In classrooms statewide, teachers explain how the system works, how issues are debated, and hope their students become more engaged in studying and participating in the process.

That mission has become more complicated this year due to the blunt and uncivil nature of some of the discourse, some educators say.

"Much of the campaign banter has not been respectful and has, unfortunately, become teachable moments in many classrooms on a too-often basis this school year," says Jane Slayton, Principal of Andover Elementary Middle School.

While there have been incidents of disrespectful behavior on both sides of the political spectrum, the campaign of Donald Trump has received the most media attention, and is therefore the focus of many of the discussions that come up in classrooms, teachers say.

"Inevitably, Donald Trump is brought up by the students. I try to turn the conversation away from the specific candidates and focus on what we can do to make the world a better and kinder place," says Sarah Edmunds, a literacy teacher at Andover.

Edmunds' classes spend time talking about intolerance and racism, and "how we can stop inhumanity… In addition, we talk about how some people can incite violence in others, and how those people can be outed for what they are and stopped."

Very opinionated

Conducting a mock election leading up to the New Hampshire primary revealed some "interesting and disturbing" behaviors from some of her students, says Megg Lynch, a history teacher at Belmont High School. "This particular round has caused the kids to be very opinionated about the candidates," Lynch says.

Lynch believes the students have been very strongly influenced by what they see and hear about the campaign through the media. When her students were researching the candidates, "some of them didn't want to look up information. They just wanted to write down what they heard from the media as if it were facts. When I told them they had to look up the information from reputable sources, they found information that they weren't expecting. Some of the students seemed to be trying to deny some of the facts."

When the class began focusing on the primary, Lynch invited State Senator Andrew Hosmer to give an introduction. He asked the students such questions as "What would happen if the government told you and your family that you weren't allowed in," or if the government wanted to put student's families into internment camps.

"Some of the students said very openly that certain groups should be put into camps, and certain groups should be removed from the population." For some of the other students, hearing those thoughts expressed was "very upsetting."

Despite the strong differences, Lynch noted that there were not a lot of direct confrontations among students. In general, "it's very difficult for them to look each other in the eye and actually have a heated argument or confrontation verbally. They might have a fight over Facebook or text messaging or Instagram, but it's very rare that you would see a kid confront another kid in class about issues."

As an educator, Lynch believes it's important for her to not share her opinions about candidates, or try to influence her students to support or reject what they hear.

Teaching down the middle

"You have to walk a line," agrees Nathan Cooper, a social studies teacher at Campbell High School in Litchfield. "I try to drive everything down the middle."

As an example, Cooper says he might talk about something that happened at a debate as "unprecedented, or different," without being critical about it. "I wouldn't want to be influencing the kids in the opinions they're forming."

While his fellow teachers "can't believe the tenor of the campaign," Cooper's students haven't spent a lot of time talking about the level of contentiousness, he says. Especially for younger students, "I assume they think this is kind of normal."

Cooper participates in the YMCA Youth in Government program, where students spend time learning about how legislation is crafted, and other fundamentals of government. He has incorporated parts of that program into his classes. But it's hard to compete with what students see in the rest of their daily lives.

"It's concerning to me to see how much air time has been given to the vulgarity and extremity of this campaign. It's one thing to tell the kids, 'This isn't normal,' and then get through the curriculum. It's almost like traversing a minefield. You're trying to teach them what you need to teach them, and trying to remain non-partisan. It's been difficult at times."

The mock elections in Cooper's class, as well as Lynch's, mirrored the state's primary results. Donald Trump won the Republican contest, and Bernie Sanders won on the Democratic side. —by Dan Kittay

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