Teachers Grapple with Unbiased Election Curriculum

By Riana Buchman, Staff Writer

 //The 2016 election came and went, but many students still do not know what to think about the whole ordeal. In the months leading up to and following the election, Acalanes Social Studies and Government teachers dealt with the election using different tactics to help nourish an environment of individual student opinions.

   The Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) Governing Board policy “prohibits teachers from presenting one-sided information, wearing buttons or expressing opinions during instructional time, … and campaigning.” However, the policy becomes inconvenient as teachers try to discuss an election riddled with clashing viewpoints, all while staying in the boundaries of the Board’s policy. Many Acalanes teachers are also unclear about what the district policy explicitly states.

   While most teachers avoid forcing opinions on students, many are still unsure about which opinions they can express when navigating through controversial topics. The Controversial Issues section of the Board policy says that “the teacher may express a personal opinion if he/she identifies it as such and does not express the opinion for the purpose of persuading students to his/her point of view.” Social Studies teacher Bob Barter, however, believes that there is no way for teachers to straddle the thin line between personal opinion and persuasion.

   “You’re either going to express your political opinions or you’re not,” government teacher Bob Barter said. “It’s kind of like being a little bit pregnant – you either are or you aren’t.”

   However, opinions can manifest in subtle ways, according to senior Ryan Kapoor.

   “You’d have to be looking for it,” Kapoor said. “Maybe [there’s] a joke here or there, making fun of the other side, or something along those lines. Or maybe it’s an article that might be slipped into our reading that could potentially lean off to one side without an opposite viewpoint.”

   Additionally, Social Studies teachers see how students may misinterpret their comments as the teacher trying to force their opinion on the students.

   “Hillary Clinton’s election would have been historic, not that I’m for her or against her, but as the first woman president. I can see the conservative side of students thinking that means ‘Schottland is in favor of Clinton,’ but no, I think that’s a fact,” Social Studies teacher Joe Schottland said.

   Teachers are supposed to aim for objectivity over subjectivity. For example, AP United States History teacher Jed Morrow covered the election in two days. He covered the local candidates, state propositions, Congress, and the presidential election, but Morrow merely facilitated conversation among students rather than offering his own opinions.

   While Government teachers often deal with touchy political subjects throughout the year, election season proved even trickier. Methods for handling disputed topics vary from teacher to teacher.

   “One of the tactics I’m using with this election is keeping focus on the words of the candidates themselves as opposed to what some editorial writer, newspaper, or what some talking head like Sean Hannity on Fox is spouting out about his perception,” Social Studies teacher Larry Freeman said.

   Social Studies teacher Kristen Anderson, meanwhile, brought her personal experiences to her teaching methods.

   “I do share with students the politicians I’ve met, and I joke that I’m friends with certain people. That helps students know that California lawmakers are real people, and I think those are things students need to know without necessarily offering an endorsement,” Anderson said.

   Yet, another tactic is not addressing everything in the election, including a teacher’s own opinions. The school curriculum touches on particular points, and therefore, breaking headlines or other miscellaneous items do not always require excessive scrutiny.

   In classes like Contemporary Issues and Public Policies, the election has also offered an interesting new area of curriculum.

   “I have absolutely said that Trump is amazing to teach and talk about in a class like Contemporary Issues and even U.S. History,” Social Studies teacher Brian Smith said.

   Teachers including Schottland want students to question their preconceived ideas. Schottland believes students should learn to challenge viewpoints through introducing students to the other sides of the election in order to make them consider opposing perspectives.

   “Our job is to persuade students that either their thinking is too narrow, or that [they are] not considering other factors, and then to reconsider their position based on new evidence,” Schottland said. “[Teachers should] be upfront and say, ‘This is my personal opinion, but it’s not the gospel. It’s not the truth; form your personal opinions. Base it on evidence and solid reasoning, not either knee-jerk reactions or what someone else believes, whether it’s your parents or whether it’s me.’”

   Barter thinks that Acalanes students already have a good foundation for expanding their views.

   “If you take the average kid – certainly if you take the average AP kid in this school – and stack him up against 85 percent of the population, they’ll know a lot more about what’s going on than that 85 percent, including college kids,” Barter said.

One Reply to “Teachers Grapple with Unbiased Election Curriculum”

  1. I like Bob Barter’s comparison of expressing bias in political discussions to pregnancy. There really isn’t any middle ground here. However, I do think it is possible to teach politics without being biased. It is just extremely hard. I think it might actually be better to admit a certain bias and then do your best presenting both sides regardless of one’s bias.

Leave a Reply