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LI teachers aim for civility in lessons on presidential race

Third-grader teacher Eileen Dawson with her students at

Third-grader teacher Eileen Dawson with her students at Eugene Auer Memorial School in Lake Grove on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. Some teachers have been fact-checking candidate claims so they can act as moderators in the classroom. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

A mock election that has been the tradition at Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary School in Lake Grove will look very different at the top of the ballot. Students can pick a favorite cafeteria food, book or author — but not a president.

The heated rhetoric about groping, sexual assault, immigration, Russian hackers, an FBI probe of a private email server, and more has educators in schools across Long Island avoiding talk about the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates and many of the race’s most attention-grabbing moments. They are struggling to present the 2016 election in terms that are age-appropriate and that avoid provoking hostile exchanges.

It hasn’t been easy.

“I’m trying to keep the real dirt out of the discussion,” said Irene Virgilio, a fifth-grade teacher at Guggenheim Elementary School in Port Washington. “My role really is to keep the waters calm. I need to constantly refocus them on the issues.”

Teachers said they have taken a number of tacks to deal with the tricky, shifting landscape of this campaign season: They have paid more attention to the Electoral College and topics such as the environment and education. They have refrained from assigning the televised debates as homework. And instead of video clips from rallies, they’re relying on reports prepared by the Scholastic News service.

Still, at Jericho Middle School, a chorus of chants, or outbursts, can interrupt the carefully crafted lessons of Theresa Cantwell, an eighth-grade social studies teacher: “Trump Train!” “Hillary’s the devil!” and “She should go to jail!”

“I’ve never heard kids so opinionated about hating one or the other candidates,” said Cantwell, who has been teaching for 24 years.

After the airing of the “Access Hollywood” tape with Republican nominee Donald Trump suggesting he could grab women by the genitalia, teachers at Elwood Middle School devoted just a few minutes to it and described it as “derogatory toward women,” recalled Patrick Burke, who teaches the sixth and eighth grades there. They moved on to other topics.

Wayne Huneke, a history teacher at the private East Woods School in Oyster Bay Cove, said the election has become “very awkward to teach.”

A note from the head of school, distributed to educators, urged them to handle campaign topics with “civility.” It asked teachers to “speak up when you hear name-calling, stereotypes and slurs.”

In Huneke’s class, and others on Long Island, the debates were not assigned as homework.

“To send a 13- or 14-year-old out to watch 90 minutes of what we’ve seen might not necessarily be a meaningful learning process,” said Maria Carnesi, chairwoman of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district’s Social Studies Department.

At Lake Grove’s Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary and at Ulysses Byas Elementary School in Roosevelt, teachers have asked students to imagine themselves as president.

“Classroom teachers are taking what’s happening in the news and not focusing on it, and instead are using it as a springboard,” Ulysses Byas principal Angela Hudson said.

Some educators expressed concern that what they say could be misinterpreted in a student’s retelling of it at home — leading to potential complications with parents.

“Because students typically possess the opinions of their parents, or older people in their lives, it’s been difficult to address how polarizing the candidates are,” Carnesi said.

Eileen Dawson, a third-grade teacher at Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary School, presided over a tense moment recently when a student said “my grandmother said we’d have to move if a certain candidate wins.” Then, “another countered that,” she said.

“We have to steer clear of conversations like that,” Dawson said. “The kids would get upset, thinking they had the wrong answer or the wrong candidate.”

Teachers are aggressively fact-checking candidate claims on their own time so they can act as moderators in the classroom. They have urged students to back up their comments with evidence and facts, and they don’t take sides.

“I’ve been very careful in how I answer things,” Virgilio said. “I don’t want to lead them one way or another.”

Jennifer Cracco, a school psychologist at Lindenhurst Middle School, said: “Questions shouldn’t be shunned or pushed aside because of the nature of them. They need to be addressed in an open forum with factual information.”

Teachers spoke of their sensitivity to their classrooms’ demographics.

In some rooms, Muslim, Latino and white students are all part of a conversation. Trump has offended many in the Latino and Muslim communities by describing some Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and proposing a ban on Muslim immigration.

“It’s tough — religion and ethnicity is always something that is a tough discussion if somebody has been offended,” Cantwell said.

Teaching the election, as well as the candidates’ behavior, were combined in a question posed during the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, when an educator in the town-hall forum asked Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: “The last presidential debate could have been rated as MA, Mature Audiences, per TV parental guidelines. Knowing that educators assign viewing the presidential debates as students’ homework, do you feel you are modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?”

Dawson said she heard the question and thought, “It was sad that it has to be this way.”

Then, the next questions in that debate were about the “Access Hollywood” tape — “things that were not appropriate for children to be aware, or to know about,” she said. “It was disappointing that children in the U.S. had to hear that.”

Teachers have found themselves trying to explain the candidates’ behaviors that the children themselves describe as “rude.” It’s obvious to students, they said, when Clinton or Trump “pivot” and don’t directly answer a question, insult one another, and don’t shake hands.

At Roosevelt, teachers tell students that “sometimes grown-ups become upset, or they don’t express themselves in the nicest of ways,” Hudson said. “They have actually put a different spin on what they’re actually hearing.”

Virgilio said she hears students say “they didn’t think that was professional.”

She’s offered several explanations, suggesting it’s collateral damage in the race for a “powerful office.”

“The election kind of has a reality-TV feel to it,” said Elwood’s Burke. “The kids are picking up on the behaviors more than the policy, for sure.”

“It’s different from years in the past,” said Ken Gutmann, principal of Eugene Auer Memorial Elementary School. “We actually would talk about the candidates, what a Democrat is, what a Republican is. Everybody’s steering clear of that completely.”


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