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Lessons in presidential politics

SemiNative

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Hung just above the whiteboard in Miss Jacobs' classroom is an artifact from the 2016 election: a Trump-Pence sign.

Before you start writing a letter to the school board, you should know there are also signs for Johnson-Weld, Clinton-Kaine and even Electra Johnson.

"As long as I have them all, it's OK," says Sarah Jacobs, a social studies teacher at Coronado High School. This collection was amassed via an extra credit assignment she gave students last semester.

Another chance for extra credit last semester? Watch the presidential debates, a traditionally innocuous, if a little boring, assignment. But not so for the 2016 election. Jacobs says students came to class asking, "Why are they talking about the size of his hands?"

As you can imagine, things haven't exactly gotten easier for social studies teachers since the 45th president of the United States was sworn into office. Government teachers around our region — and around the country — have been faced with new challenges. What was once a relatively stable subject is now a moving target.

Jacobs (whose challenge also includes teaching my daughter in her AP government class) belongs to a private Facebook group of about 2,100 AP government teachers from around the country. The group, which provided a way to share lesson plans and gain insight into the advanced placement test, is now grappling with such issues as how to keep opinion out of the classroom and how to put out fires started when less politically educated teachers show bias on controversial subjects.

"We all love government," Jacobs says of the group, where they still try to remain neutral in their conversations. She recently suggested they start a second group where they can discuss issues rather than class content.

Jacobs, who has been teaching for seven years, says her challenge used to be getting kids to care about government — most of the kids in her AP government class are juniors and not old enough to vote. Now she finds all students, even those not in the advanced courses, are engaged.

Before this year, Brett Elhoffer taught history. This year at Widefield High School, he made the move to teaching only government classes. Through the summer as the school year drew near, he wondered about the wisdom of this move and says at times it's been interesting. But he's also been impressed by the way students handle the discussions. He says he witnesses them behaving better than many adults outside the school setting.

Also on his side is the fact that he coaches the debate team. Whatever a student's opinion, he insists they have credible evidence. Elhoffer says he's cautious to address all sides of the issues.

"I refuse to let them know how I voted," he says. That doesn't stop students from guessing. "I don't feel like my opinion matters. Their opinion does."

Even with that balance, Elhoffer too has to skirt some sketchy subjects. In class they discussed Buzzfeed releasing the dossier that detailed allegations about the president and Russia. The content of that report had the whole country discussing golden showers — not appropriate classroom discussion. He relies on a classroom code of conduct to guide discussions. He's had to tell students he can't discuss it, nor can he suggest they go look it up. (I don't know about you, but that sort of "warning" would have had a teenage me running to Google to look it up, if Google had existed when I was a teen.)

Students enrolled in AP government must take an exam at the end of semester to be able to earn college credit for the course. "Luckily, the test was written last year so I can focus on what ought to or what usually happens," Jacobs says. Fitting in that content can be challenging when her students continue to ask relevant critical thinking questions. "I'd rather make good citizens than test-taking drones."

And like Elhoffer, she values her students' opinions, holding them accountable. Social studies teachers have long taught about the use of credible sources, but now many are adjusting their lesson plans to address new concepts like "fake news."

Chemistry teachers can face danger in the classroom if students aren't precise in their experimentation. Who would have ever thought that there could be more combustion coming from the rooms of social studies teachers?

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