Last week I was asked to guest teach an English lesson to a group of 24 high school students. I was given a 2-hour time period to teach them any topic of my choice about America or American culture. Naturally, given the current political climate in the United States and the news coverage this election cycle is receiving around the world I felt compelled to teach about the 2016 American election.
If you know me personally, you know that I am a huge geek when it comes to government and politics. In high school, I volunteered during President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and worked at the polls. I was also an active member of my school’s Young Democrats club, which maxed out at around 10 members (yay Texas). Then in college I attended one of the most politically active universities in the country – American University. One of the biggest parties I attended during undergrad was the night of the 2012 election. We even drove to the White House afterwards to celebrate.
All of this is to tell you that I knew when I was creating my lesson plan that I needed to be very careful and thoughtful about how to teach about the election in a bipartisan and fair way. I know that I am definitely not an impartial person to talk to when it comes to this subject (see this post about when people ask me about Trump for reference). I have a lot of opinions and I’m normally not afraid to share them with anyone. But when it came to this lesson, I wanted to try my hardest to present the information in the most fair and equal light that I could.
But this election cycle isn’t normal. And it was really difficult for me to find a way to teach about our presidential candidates in this “fair and equal light.” How do I fairly portray a candidate who has said derogatory comments that could be applied to the very students who sat in the classroom I was supposed to teach?
I decided the best thing I could do was to let the students make up their minds on their own. I would provide them with all of the information they needed, and they would make their choice as to who they would vote for.
After briefly explaining the “Three Branches of Government” and reinforcing the fact that the American president does not have the same powers as a king, we played an activity called “Four Corners.” Each corner of the room was labelled with a different paper: “I strongly agree,” “I agree,” “I disagree,” and “I strongly disagree.” As I read a statement aloud, the students were instructed to walk to the corner that best described their reaction to the statement.
I had selected a list of nine issues in the American election, ranging from gun control to immigration to ISIS to taxes, that I felt were the “hot topics” of the election and that the students would easily understand without too much of a backstory. I wanted to see how these Moroccan teenagers felt about our issues in America while forcing them to take a position and practice supporting that position in English.
With the statement: “America should not let Syrian refugees in to the country,” the students looked at me incredulously and ran to the corner of the room labelled “I strongly disagree.” Every student camped out in that corner. Every. Single. One. When I explained to them that some Americans believed that some Syrian refugees may be terrorists or create crime in America, they almost laughed. “They have nowhere else to go!” the students pleaded with me. “It is so dangerous in Syria they cannot stay there,” another student added.
The students had a similar, unanimous opinion when it came to gun control or guns in schools. I told them about the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and that some people believe that if the teachers had had guns the tragedy would have been prevented. But they held their ground. They also unanimously believed that America should use its military to fight ISIS and that America must take steps to address climate change.
The only issues that brought up some forms of debate were in regards to the death penalty and whether to increase taxes for the rich. When a student told me he believed that the rich were already paying their fair share, I jokingly told him I thought he was probably a Republican. Afterwards he looked as if my words had wounded him. I tried to reassure him that being a Republican wasn’t a bad thing, but the media coverage of Donald Trump had already effected the way he saw the Republican Party in America as a whole.
After we finished the “Four Corners” activity, the students watched campaign ads from each of the candidates. My goal was to have them watch the ads and make up their own minds about the candidates’ messages, while practicing their listening skills in English.
This was a difficult activity to prepare because Donald Trump is not running a traditional campaign. He has run very few traditional campaign ads, none of which are listed on his website. Ultimately, I had to select an ad that was basically a clip from one of his stump speeches. It ran in stark contrast to the Clinton campaign, which has a highly sophisticated network of videos on a variety of platforms, including her own YouTube channel.
During the videos, the students latched on to the idea that Hillary Clinton was kind, compassionate, and an advocate for the poor, whereas Donald Trump wanted to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States and only promised to make America “great.”
Next, I presented the students with a side-by-side look of how the candidates stand on the issues. Again, the abnormal nature of the Trump campaign made it difficult for me to write out the candidates’ platforms in an equal and unbiased way because he has taken a stance on so few issues. I tried to do research on many reputable websites, including his own campaign website, and even then was forced to draw a literal question mark (“?”) on the poster when it came to his stance on health care.
Once the students were presented with all of the information, I asked them to write about who they would vote for and why. Which issue was the most important to them?
As the students finished with their writing assignments, I began passing around a “ballot box” I had fashioned from an old crackers box, some white paper, and patriotic-colored markers. I asked the students to write their choice for the next American president on a piece of paper and slip it inside. Though it was only a mock election, the students couldn’t contain their excitement. Each student wanted their picture taken while they put their ballot in the box (don’t worry I did tell them that voting is actually private in America).
Later I took the slips of paper out of the box one-by-one and we tallied the votes on the board. Each student had voted for Hillary Clinton.
As the students read their reasons aloud for the support of Hillary Clinton, I understood why their choice was united. They saw themselves in the people Secretary Clinton promises to help. They live in a rural, poor community. They are Muslim. Some of them would like to immigrate to the United States one day. They see global warming as their generation’s problem. And they kept repeating that Donald Trump was racist.
But what they really wanted to say is: “Donald Trump doesn’t like me.”
My job as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as a de facto ambassador of America each day that I bike and prance around my Moroccan community has never felt more important. It has never been more critical for me to prove to Moroccans that I meet that Americans can be kindhearted, accepting, funny, considerate, and willing to learn about new cultures. Donald Trump does not represent the America that I love and that I want to share with my Moroccan community.
Now that class is over there’s no need to be “fair and equal.” And you can bet your asses I’m sending in my absentee ballot all the way from this tiny town in the desert to vote for the first female president of the United States.