As the 2016 election cycle has produced historic levels of partisan animosity between voters, intense focus on individual candidates and an at-times deeply personal struggle between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, some Albemarle County and Charlottesville government teachers have had to change how they teach the election.
At Albemarle High School, where students work in teams to form their own mock campaigns after drawing candidates at random, teacher Julie Strong has had to make rules about what can and cannot be in campaign materials.
This year, students were given strict instructions before an assignment that required them to create two political advertisements, one positive and one an “attack” ad.
“I have had to make a lot of caveats this year about what can go in an ad, and especially an attack ad,” she said. “There is a certain line of respect and civility that we expect of our students … Our hope is that we are modeling civil dialogue in our classes.”
At Charlottesville High School, Allen Robinson used the unique race to frame historical context.
“Donald Trump may be a catalyst for some serious changes in the nomination process, the way campaigns are run and in the coalitions of Americans who support each party,” Robinson said. “His candidacy is also the culmination of changes that have been happening for some time.”
Figuring out how and why those changes happened has been a big focus of Robinson’s classroom work.
“One of my aims is for my students to be able to trace those changes backward in time — and to speculate on what may come in the next few years,” he said.
Fellow CHS teacher Thomas Gore has used 2016 as a new lens to revisit the lessons he would teach any other year.
“I will typically build off of constitutional rules and other practices to help students understand the election-related events they are seeing in the news,” he said. “I’ve found in this current election, I am pointing out more exceptions to the rules, and answering questions about the atypical aspects of our current candidates and their behaviors.”
At Monticello High School, a mock election did not trade in partisan debates and did not require groups of students to pick sides and debate campaign issues.
Instead, Jim Huneycutt and the rest of the government team at MHS had groups of students research issues, study each candidate’s stance and policy proposals and present their findings to their schoolmates.
The approach had the effect of removing some of the contentiousness and vitriol that has permeated this election cycle, but for Huneycutt and his colleagues, it is business as usual.
“At the core of both sides, there are issues that may be hard to understand but that we have to try to understand,” he said. “That is the same in every election, so the charge to the citizen becomes that much more important. If the campaigns become candidate-focused, then the citizens have to be that much more informed.”
Though Strong and Huneycutt employ different methods, they both are hoping their students will learn to engage with ideas that oppose their own without hostility.
“I want students, regardless of how they feel about a candidate or an issue, to be open to, and in some ways show empathy for, a side or an issue they might not agree with,” Strong said.
Huneycutt’s goal is not to ignore party politics altogether, but to get students engaged in calm, two-sided debate by studying issues and American founding principles in depth.
“We are factious, and we will always be factious, but we can solve public policy questions civilly, and we can be civil while we disagree,” he said. “There will not always be a neat solution to every problem.”
Monticello High senior Emily Padilla-Chicas, who will vote for the first time on Nov. 8, said the approach has helped her mediate discussions among her friends and has helped inform her own beliefs.
“I have gained a greater respect for not so much focusing on what the media has to say about each candidate, because they can portray the candidates in a not so positive light,” she said. “This has allowed me to see what each candidate has to say about specific issues and see if they relate to my own values.”