Government can be interesting to teach during a presidential election

Marlys Barker, Nevada Journal Editor
Nevada government teacher Andrew Kleeman helps Nevada student Lucas Rogers as Rogers prepares to make a vote in the Youth Straw Poll on Monday. The Youth Straw Poll was held across the state this week, allowing students in grades 9-12 to cast votes for the candidates they favored in some of the big races.

Iowa high school students are taking their required government course during one of the most combative presidential elections in history. The constant barrage of social media postings and campaign coverage, along with several heated debates, has provided plenty of extra material for government teachers and their students. The election is now just five days away, and no matter how it ends, the conversation about it will likely go on for weeks. Area high school government teachers say they are finding ways to balance what they need to cover in their course with the real-world politics going on outside the classroom.

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Nevada High School teacher Andrew Kleeman likes campaigns and elections. So teaching government during a very big presidential election year, he believes, makes his class even more relevant to the students taking it.

“The content of the course isn’t necessarily different (this year), but I would argue that student engagement is higher during presidential election years,” Kleeman said.

Collins-Maxwell High School government teacher Wes Stover would agree. “There is obviously more to talk about and teach in government during an election year. It (the current election) creates more discussion in class.”

Parts of the required curriculum that both Kleeman and Stover must fit into government class every year include foundational knowledge of the three branches of government and an understanding of the United States Constitution. The class is also a place for students to learn about the beliefs and platforms of each political party and to learn enough about the issues to become educated voters.

Many of the students taking government this year are going to be eligible to vote in five days, and that makes it even more important, Kleeman said, to cover the issues of this election.

“We talk about the election daily,” Kleeman said. And it hasn’t been like pulling teeth to get kids to talk about it this year. “They seem to be quite interested in all of the media attention.” A lot of students, he added, are very passionate about which candidate they are supporting.

Kleeman and Stover both say that a good portion of their students watched the televised debates. “The day after a debate, we will have a good open discussion in class about what was said,” Stover noted.

But even though they talk about it, Stover admits he is less willing to be as involved in this election with his students as he has been in the past. “There are just too many negative things that the students are seeing in the current election. I worry that they are learning that this is how political/presidential elections are to be run.”

The current election saddens Stover. “Seems to me like a lot of ugliness of where American politics is right now has been exposed by this election. No matter which candidate a person favors, almost every person I know personally all say the same thing, ‘Neither is a good choice.’ I hear things like, ‘lesser of two evils’ and ‘anybody but that candidate.’” You very rarely hear anybody boast one of these candidates, because they feel very strong about their leadership, integrity, policy, etc.”

Stover said he recently was teaching about the 2000 election and the quagmire in Florida. From there, he would be going over the primary/nomination process. “I will teach them how the nomination process is supposed to work, for the people and by the people. But yet, they need to be aware of the media’s role in the process and what was exposed with the Democratic National Committee this year.” The current election, he admits, is offering a lot of “teachable moments.”

Some of the best teachable moments, Stover said, are from students coming in and asking him questions about something that they heard or learned from somewhere else. “Some kids are getting some real bad information that I find myself correcting. Things like, ‘Obama or Hillary are going to take our guns away,’ then I have to teach them about how the three branches of government work and (that there are) checks and balances.”

Stover recalled another interesting conversation. “I had a senior tell me that he had been told that President Obama is trying to get the U.S. involved in a war so that he can remain president for the next four years… I asked him how that worked. He said that he was told that if the U.S. is involved in a war, then we can’t elect a new president. This was a teachable moment, but it scares me that there is an adult out there going to the polls next month that thinks this.”

Kleeman notes that there’s been a lot of positive and negative media attention in this entire campaign cycle, and because the presidential candidates have been “unique,” it’s appealing to young voters. “Last school year is where this became apparent during the nomination process and the caucuses,” he said. “I saw our students voicing their opinions and (giving) open support for their candidates. That was fun to see. I even had some students who participated in organizing their caucus in their precinct and had one volunteer to be a delegate at the county convention.”

Unlike some of those talking about the election every day, Kleeman said it’s important in his teaching to analyze the presidential candidates and try to identify positive leadership qualities, as well as each candidate’s ability to try to unify the major parties. “My hope is the winner of the election is able to move our country forward in a positive way,” he said.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said it’s important for high school government teachers to incorporate the current election into their curriculum. “The making of a democracy starts at a young age. It begins at the grassroots, which is often right in the high school classroom,” Pate said. He hopes that what students are learning and talking about in their classrooms will build an interest and engagement in civics that lasts the rest of their lives.

Stover recalls that Collins-Maxwell used to have a civics class for underclassmen that created a foundation about government and politics, but that course hasn’t been a part of the school’s offerings for about eight years now, and he regrets that. The civics course, he said, better prepared students for their senior year of government.

One thing that both Kleeman and Stover are excited about is having students get involved in election day, even if they are too young to officially vote.

Stover said he provides a mock election of some sort each year. Kleeman’s students just took part, early this week, in the Secretary of State’s Iowa Youth Straw Poll. He polled all students, nine-12, and will submit his results to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. That office then produces statewide data about how students taking part across the state voted. The Straw Poll, Pate said, “is an opportunity to introduce students to the democratic process and to help them build the knowledge and skills to be active, engaged citizens.”

Pate said, in a press release this week, that the Youth Straw Poll provides “some interesting insight into which candidates have appealed to Iowa’s youth.”

Pate said he always gives the following advice to candidates about getting young people to vote for them. “They need to have a message that resonates with young people. Barack Obama was able to do that in 2008, as was Ronald Reagan in 1984.” Most would agree that Bernie Sanders also did this in the primary process this past year.

For Stover and Kleeman, they want to encourage civic responsibility, but leave the opinion-making up to their students.

Parents can rest assured, Stover said, that he isn’t trying to influence students with his own political affiliation. “I am a staunch Independent. I wave no flag for any political party. I love being involved in politics, so I have participated in Democratic and Republican caucuses. I joke with the kids that this means I can make fun of both sides in my classroom!”

Kleeman notes that every student, every citizen, will be impacted in some way by government policy, which means teaching it well is very important. “I truly enjoy watching students research current issues and develop their personal opinions… My hope is the students choose to vote and believe their voice matters.”