Teach the 2016 Election! The Candidate's Language Challenge

How to Teach When a Candidate Says "!@#$"

Social Studies teachers are challenged as they teach the 2016 Presidential Election when candidate language becomes inappropriate.

This 2016 Presidential Election is posing major challenges for all middle school and high school social studies teachers. Some of the language used by candidates would be considered inappropriate or bullying by most school standards. Yet, social studies teachers still need to engage students in the election process; they have the responsibility of creating good citizens.

According to the National Council of Social Studies Teachers:

"....our task is essential to maintaining an effective democracy."

This responsibility to engage students in grades 7-12 in politics and civic behavior is complicated by the language of political discourse by and on behalf of the candidates nominated by political parties.

In the newly adopted College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, teachers are encouraged to inform students at an early age about politics and civic behavior, both among individuals and within and across governmental bodies, "Students of all ages are very curious about how decisions get made, and show interest in participating."

There are always those divisive political issues that can make discussion in class difficult: immigration, gun policies, terrorism, environment, health care, etc. Social Studies teachers are careful to present contrasting opinions objectively and to facilitate civil discusssion.

This year, however, the language of the candidates and their spokespeople or surrogates has added complications to discussions.  Some examples during the primary season have included:

  • The use of the term anchor baby: defined as (offensive) use to refer to a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country which has birthright citizenship to gain an advantage;
  • The sexual innuendo in the description "small hands"  in reference to a candidate during a televised debate;
  • Repeated use of the derogatory terms jerksclowns, and morons during the primary debates;

These  are just a few of the examples where inappropriate language has taken center stage in the news that are reported daily. These statements often become inflamed inappropriate langauge in the public discourse on social media (Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, etc.)

Question: How then is a teacher supposed to discuss the presidential election with his or her students when some of the language used by candidates is the kind of language that might send a student to the office or give a student a suspension?

Teachers cannot always filter out the vulgarities or profanities from the media, especially when middle and high school students have 24/7 access to raw information from news and social media. Teachers can, however, use the statements made by candidates as an opportunity to help students become critical thinkers who have the ability to speak well, to listen to others, and to make a decision that is supported by the evidence that they have evaluated.

This presidential election is an opportunity to teach students how to listen and to speak respectfully in the discussion in class. Students are already familiar with the behavior expected in schools. All schools have policies that expect students will not engage in harassment that offends, ridicules, or demeans another individual with regard to race, national origin,  gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ancestry, physical attributes, socioeconomic status, familial status, physical or mental ability, or disability. Student handbooks detail that bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, and intimidation are strictly prohibited by federal law. 

The following questions, and the reasons for each, may help guide teachers in negotiating this year's minefield of inappropriate language.

  This is part of the preparation of students so they may understand their civic responsibility of taking informed action when they become future voters.

Questions to Use with Students:

1. What are the school rules on the use of inappropriate language? How might a candidate's language have violated our school rules? 

Asking this question will help student familiarize themselves with the school policy on the use of inappropriate language; usually in the student handbook. 

2. Why might a candidate choose to use controversial language? Why might groups might think favorably about the use of inappropriate language?

Students would need to speculate on what reasons a candidate might have for using controversial language: media attention, group acceptance, public image, etc. 

3. How is the language spoken by a candidate related to the issues he or she supports? What is the impact of this language on civil discourse?

Students can take this opportunity to identify negative/positive impact on issues; students may fact-check and evaluate a candidate's claims.

Filtered News Sources

Traditional and social media outlets may not filter candidate language, but there are several alternative news sources for educators. The following three (3) websites will filter news stories for their appropriate content:

  • PBS Election Central: Public Broadcasting Service Education has created tools, resources and creative solutions to educate students on the various facets of the political process.
  • Scholastic Election: Latest news stories for grades 5-10 compiled by the educational publisher Scholastic. Students can use these resources to study elections and participate in one of their own.
  • NEWSELA: Newsela provides teachers, parents, and students with over 1,000 current event articles scaled at five (5) different Lexile reading comprehension levels. There are election text sets and these collections of articles  help students to make connections to the 2016 candidates and political topics.

Historical Precedent:

Teachers may (or may not) want to share that there a number of historical precedents for candidates who have used inappropriate language in their political campaigns. They might want consider how to discuss the inappropriate language used by the Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during the turbulent election of 1800. During that campaign, the insults flew back and forth with each side insulting the other using one the following:  "a fool," "a hypocrite," "a criminal,""a tyrant," "a weakling,"and" a coward."

In addition, there is plenty of evidence that the 19th Century American newspapers did not believe in objectivity; they played a major role in promoting a favored candidate. As the only media of the time, these newspapers heavily influenced every election. The editors were not beyond smearing the candidate's family members, for example, mothers and wives were slandered as prostitutes in the John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson election of 1828. The Yellow Journalism of 1895-1898 is credited with creating the Spanish American War and to launch the political career of Theodore Roosevelt.

Throughout American political history there is evidence of how political candidates' used political bullying during election campaigns, often using the "bully pulpit", a term coined by Roosevelt.

The Bully Pulpit

The bullying in this political season can be loosely linked to the term Bully Pulpit used to mean a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue. This was how President Theodore Roosevelt used the term:

"I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!"

Roosevelt's  use of the word bully was as an adjective meaning "first- rate," or in 21st Century speak, "awesome." The term "bully pulpit" is still used today to describe a position of power to influence the public, and is one of the key terms that students can learn about in studying the presidential election.

The political bullying in this presidential race, however, has been of the verbal kind, which is defined on the government sponsored Stop Bullying website as "saying or writing mean things including":

  • Teasing
  • Name-calling
  • Inappropriate sexual comments
  • Taunting
  • Threatening to cause harm

Unfortunately, candidates engaged in the 2016 Election Season are giving teachers the difficult task of trying to teaching students the differences between the bullies on the playground and the political bullies now on the pulpit.

 The C3s and the Adult in the Room

 According to the C3 Frameworks, social studies teachers have the responsibility to prepare their students to be" informed, skilled, and engaged participators in the workings of our constitutional republic." Students will need to understand the workings of our constitutional republic, and be guided when the language turns foul.

The language of this 2016 presidential election is proving to be controversial. All the more the reason that students studying civics will need to have an adult in the room....their teacher.

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Bennett, Colette. "Teach the 2016 Election! The Candidate's Language Challenge." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/candidates-language-challenge-4074275. Bennett, Colette. (2017, February 21). Teach the 2016 Election! The Candidate's Language Challenge. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/candidates-language-challenge-4074275 Bennett, Colette. "Teach the 2016 Election! The Candidate's Language Challenge." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/candidates-language-challenge-4074275 (accessed November 22, 2017).