In a presidential election stoked by combustible rhetoric, local educators have shied away from bringing campaign specifics into the classroom. Instead, with curricula largely avoiding both of the major party nominees, teachers and administrators at Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools have addressed party platforms, demographic appeal and promotional tactics as a means of instructing middle school students on the upcoming election.
Such a pedagogical decision was driven by a desire to “create a meaningful and respectful election experience,” explained Avi Baran Munro, Community Day School’s head of school.
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal at Hillel Academy, likewise referred to larger themes that can be developed during the waning days of the campaign, as opposed to focusing on the candidates themselves.
“We thought it was a way that they could learn about the process and general policies without the distraction of the two general candidates,” he said.
The “process” should really be what students are focusing on, noted Lindsay Garrison, a middle school teacher at Yeshiva Schools. “With so many negative ads and stories the students see and hear, I feel it distracts from the real lesson of how our electoral process works.”
While each of the three schools independently approached the question of how to teach about the election, similar elements existed within their curriculum designs.
In seeking certain civic aims, eighth-graders at Community Day School worked with social studies teacher Chaim Steinberg to run mock campaigns, deliver stump speeches, create campaign posters and develop voter outreach programs.
Students were asked to work off of the Democratic and Republican parties’ platforms, but to do so in a manner focusing on issues and communicating ideas in a way that appeals to young voters, explained Munro.
That process, which required research and preparation, enabled students to avoid “repeating the same talking points” voiced in the media — comments that if repeated in school might land students in detention, noted Munro.
To further shun preconceived biases, Steinberg asked students to refrain from referring to their parties as either Democratic or Republican.
“Both parties can bring so much previous weight with how people relate to them or identify with them,” the middle school teacher explained.
So instead, CDS students adopted party names and designs that would appeal to middle school sensibilities.
Goodbye Democrats and Republicans. Hello Pandas and Unicorns.
The winning party will enjoy its victory shortly, explained Steinberg.
After both the Pandas and Unicorns elect eighth-grade student nominees for president and vice president, stump speeches will be delivered in the fourth- through eighth-grade social studies classes. Then, following a presidential debate, middle schoolers will cast ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 8, the real-life Election Day.
CDS’s fictionalized electoral journey moderately mirrors Hillel Academy’s reimagined election.
Titled “Election Redux,” Hillel Academy’s project has students “studying the nominating process and creating a candidate for a presidential campaign,” said Weinberg.
As part of the project, seventh- through 12th-grade students researched both the Democratic and Republican parties’ platforms. With that knowledge, students then scoured congressional records, prior campaigns and demographic data to discover a suitable presidential candidate.
Of the 12 participating student groups, several familiar names were chosen, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Hillary Clinton. Some students even proposed that President Barack Obama run for a third term, noted Weinberg.
While research was critical to the endeavor, “the capstone of the project [required] students to create promotional pieces for their selected candidate using the tactics of political campaigns,” explained the principal.
The promotional materials, which included student-generated campaign ads, videos, commercials and memes, were shared among groups during class and in an assembly.
Like CDS’ project, “Election Redux” will conclude in the coming days when students vote in a mock presidential election.
At Yeshiva Schools, similarly crafted curricula allowed fifth-grade students to create their own political parties and candidates, run through the primary and general election processes and hold a mock election, explained Mindy Small, general studies director at Yeshiva Schools’ Boys School.
Throughout the process, fifth-graders also discussed “real-world issues regarding this election, held debates on those topics [and] made campaign posters and videos,” added Garrison.
A substantial element of Yeshiva Schools’ educational tactic was incorporating actual election-related materials.
Throughout the past school year, sixth- through eighth-grade students “watched clips from the primary and general election debates where they were required to ask questions and make comments about candidate answers,” said Small.
This was in addition to reading “a variety of news articles from both sides of the political spectrum,” including election timed mailings, she added.
By emphasizing the primary process, party convention, the Electoral College and “down-ticket” elections, Yeshiva’s students have broadened their political understandings, the school’s administrators said.
Months ago, area educators determined that there would be challenges to traditionally approaching the 2016 race for the White House.
“We felt that the particularly contentious nature of this specific presidential election [would make] it difficult to focus on the actual issues and process affecting this election,” said Weinberg.
But by “mindfully” tackling the issues, said Steinberg, the lessons have “gone really well.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.