Teachers work to overcome election as ‘entertainment’

October 21, 2016
Argus Leader

The 2016 presidential campaign has caught students’ attention — the good, the bad and the nasty.

The challenge for government teachers: channeling that interest in the spectacle into a sense of genuine civic responsibility.

It is a tall order, especially when students come to class with questions about personal attacks, scandals and lewd remarks.

“My first response is, it’s embarrassing,” said Marc Murren, a longtime government teacher at Washington High School. “It’s not, I don’t know, it’s not normal. It’s not usual.”

Murren and other Sioux Falls teachers this election cycle are encouraging students to look beyond the presidential race and recognize that, while they may be turned off to the presidential candidates, their vote can still make a difference locally.

The end goal for teachers across the board is simple: get students to vote.

“I tell them, I don’t care why you’re interested,” said Scott Sorenson, a government teacher at New Technology High School. “I care that you’re going to vote and be involved.”

Sorenson’s students discuss the debates and the jabs back and forth between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but in Sylvia Gill’s classroom at Roosevelt High School, it’s a different story. Gill covers the presidential election, but she focuses more on the process than the debates and drama.

She used to reward students who watched debates, until the primary debates began this election cycle.

“I said to the students, ‘Forget it,’” Gill said. “No extra credit for watching the debates. It’s not worth it.”

Lincoln High School teacher Barry Foster isn’t treating this race any differently from past election years. His students study the process, and if questions arise about the more entertainment-worthy aspects of the race, he answers them.

“We’re not going out of our way to talk about it,” Foster said.

Sorenson and Murren still offer students some incentive to watch debates, and both say they’re seeing more students tuning in.

“I’ve had more kids ask … questions about debates than ever before in my 37 years of teaching government because of the entertainment factor,” Murren said. “(They’re watching) who’s going to say what next.”

Sorenson’s not sure if the “entertainment factor” is good or bad for students.

“To a certain degree, in the long run, it could really backfire on some of them,” he said.

Sorenson’s seen a range of responses from his students, some saying they see the candidates’ name calling as childish, which makes them not want to vote. Others say they’re watching now, but don’t know if they’ll pay attention to politics after the election.

Brittany Erickson, a 17-year-old New Tech senior, summed up her thoughts on the election in one quip:

“It’s not going to be a good one.”

While teachers have different approaches to covering the presidential race, when it comes to local races, they agree.

All high school students are learning about the 10 South Dakota ballot measures. They’re learning about their precincts and registering to vote.

Across the board, teachers are trying to convey that, even if a student is fed up with national politics, there’s still a way to feel their vote is making a difference.

“Our power is so much greater at the local level,” Gill said, sharing an example of talking with her students about a ballot measure affecting the minimum wage for workers under the age of 18. “If you don’t like it, (voting) is what we do to change it.”