Sharon N. Goldsmith, a graduate of the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), began her teaching career at Howard High School in 2012. There she teaches American Government Honors, AP U.S. Government and the Social Studies elective, Law and the Citizen. Here Goldsmith shares how she has encouraged respectful political discussions and engaged citizen involvement, especially surrounding the election.
I will admit, I was nervous walking into my classroom on November 9. It was not because students had had a four-day weekend, rather it had to do with the 2016 election. Of course we had discussed the election in all my classes, how could we not? Students were living in the middle of their Government class!
I had students excited about President-elect Trump and I had students who were scared. How could I show that I support both sides at the same time? Not only that, but how can I handle my students and their emotions while balancing my own? It’s so easy to get caught up with your students and forget about yourself as a person. You are so used to being the strong support for your students that you don’t always want to show weakness. During controversial topics we are taught to stay as neutral as possible, and trust me it isn’t easy.
Teaching a Social Studies class during an election year is always difficult, but this year was different. It wasn’t just in Social Studies classes. I had heard from colleagues in other departments that students were talking about the election. In Social Studies, we spent time at our professional development discussing how to talk about controversial topics, so we can facilitate the discussion amongst our students.
Students were really excited about the election, and I loved that they were showing an interest and bringing outside information into class. As part of the Government team, we made a collective decision to reorder lesson plans for Honors. Students would be able to follow along with the election as they learned about the election process.
For my AP students, I wanted to take advantage of the real-life governmental process they were living in and began them on a Campaign Project. Last year, students were assigned one candidate to profile and discuss, but I wanted students to look beyond their own bias and look at other perspectives. This year, students were asked to look at both the Republican and Democratic candidates for president, and discuss the stances of both the individuals and their respective political parties. Students are still working on this project, and I am excited to see what they turn in.
In my Law and the Citizen class, I wanted to help turn these young adults into active and engaged citizens in the community, in Maryland and in the United States. I felt that it’s my job to help these students become responsible voters. We spent the week prior to the election learning about citizen advocacy and how to get involved. They learned about grassroots efforts and the voter registration process. They analyzed voter turnout in the past elections and even predicted voter turnout for the 2016 election.
It turns out it was not that Wednesday I needed to worry about. It was Thursday. Most students had stayed up late to watch the end result. On Wednesday, they came in exhausted. Students came into class on Thursday with more questions than I expected. They didn’t understand the Electoral College, they didn’t understand the outcome, and some were scared that the president was going to have “unlimited power.”
Instead of moving on to discussing juvenile justice as I had planned, students wanted to know more about the Electoral College, so I found a great video from CNN that explained it. Students then examined the states to see how they divided their electoral votes. Students examined the various proposals to try to either abolish the Electoral College or re-do how states decide who gets their electoral votes. My students were impressed with Maine and Nebraska as they divide it based on districts, and thought Maryland should decide theirs the same way. Although Maryland was the first state to sign onto the National Popular Vote bill, students didn’t think this would be as effective as using the district plan.
This led into our next discussion, which was how the students could make a difference. Both students who were excited and students who were upset about President-elect Trump’s victory came together in wanting to reform the Electoral College. Although some of my students wanted to stage a protest, I encouraged local level participation by writing or meeting with their members of Maryland’s General Assembly. Instead of being angry or frustrated with the system, I wanted them to channel their emotions into becoming involved and active in politics.
We had discussed the Constitution previously in class, so I wanted to make sure that students knew that it was still in effect. To end our class period, we revisited the powers of the president and what the president has the power to do.
At the end of day, I was exhausted. I found comfort in the fact that my classrooms had stayed civil. Students were respectful of each other and each other’s opinions. They came together at the end of class and understood that no matter how each felt, they were all dealing with something. They knew this election would affect them, but in different ways.
This has been an intense period in the classroom, but students have turned their frustration into action and have told me they are writing to their members of Maryland’s General Assembly about their thoughts on the Electoral College. I am so pleased that students are standing up not only for themselves, but also for their family, friends and even people they do not know.