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Teaching About This Election: Sometimes Bad Examples Make Good Teaching Points

As the author of a book on presidential elections for children in grades 3 through 5, every election year I get invited to speak about the election process at book fairs, in libraries, at bookstores, and especially at schools.

Except, not so much this year.

I suspected that this year was different when teachers at several schools cautioned me in advance about discussing the candidates. They said that some of their students get “agitated” when talking about one or another of the candidates, and the discussions become heated and sometimes hurtful.

But I realized it was a problem when one of the bookstores that my publisher works with said that they contacted several schools about inviting me for an event, but none of them would agree to have me speak. Apparently, this year’s election is “too sensitive” to discuss in class.

Imagine that. One of the great hallmarks of our republican democracy, the quadrennial selection of the chief executive, and some teachers are afraid to discuss it.

Now, I am not judging or criticizing teachers. I talk to students for only an hour at a time, and they are usually on their best behavior because they are getting to see and hear a real live author. I don’t have to spend 180+ days a year instructing, engaging, consoling, disciplining, and guiding classrooms filled with 30 or more squirming, energetic, and easily animated kids. I don’t have to mediate their disagreements or punish their misbehaviors or soothe injured feelings. And I don’t have to answer to angry parents who may complain that what I am teaching contradicts political, cultural, moral, or religious values that the parents are teaching at home.

So I can appreciate why some teachers are avoiding, or at least tip-toeing, through this year’s presidential election.

But I think they are missing a great opportunity. This election is extraordinary for many reasons, most of them bad. Questions have been raised about the candidates’ fitness for office. The tone of the campaign is particularly nasty and personal. Candidates have made statements about what they will do in office that some people have found troubling. And some people are even questioning the legitimacy of the election, saying the system is “rigged” against them.

Yes, this is hardly a model presidential election for future voters to emulate. But sometimes bad examples provide valuable teaching moments as well, and in that regard this election provides much that students could learn from.

If I were teaching, I would talk about the role of the president under the U.S. Constitution. I would explain what the president’s jobs are and, just as importantly, what jobs do not belong to the president but belong instead to Congress and to the courts. I would talk about the checks and balances in the Constitution and how, although the president has a lot of power, the Constitution has given the other branches of government ways of limiting the president’s power.

I would ask the students what qualities they think are necessary to be president and which are the most important. I’ve asked some of my audiences that question. “Leadership” and “being smart” almost always get mentioned. But “being popular” also gets some votes, and so do “kindness” and “honesty.”

I would examine the election process in detail. I would look at the voting and vote-counting processes and the steps that local governments take to keep them fair. I would bring in local election officials to describe what happens on Election Day so the students could see that everyday people, from all political parties, devote time and effort to make sure that every vote counts and results are accurate and fair.

I would talk about civility, about how people can disagree without being nasty to each other. I would talk about the Founding Fathers, about how they disagreed on so many things, especially slavery. And yet, with all of their differences, they agreed that the most important goal of the country was to work together, to find common ground, and to compromise.

Most of all, I would discuss the rule of law. I would explain that the rule of law is an implicit contract we make with each other and with our government that if our government officials follow “due process” in making, implementing, and enforcing the law, then we will follow it. We don’t have to like it, we can continue to disagree with it and use all legal methods to change it, but we agree to honor it.

The rule of law is what makes us different. It is why our country has survived. It means we respect the legal process and abide by the decisions made through application of the law. That includes the results of an election. Sometimes we take for granted that it doesn’t happen that way everywhere else.

If we are to improve our political process in the future, then we must prepare the next generation of voters to do and to expect better. We must teach them how the system is supposed to work, identify why it is not working that way, and encourage them to find ways to improve it. Because if we equip children with the tools they need to fix what is not working in our political system, then maybe they can do better than we did.

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