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Feighan: In ugly election year, teachers find lessons

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Troy High School teacher Ryan Werenka has taught government and civics classes to teenagers for 17 years, but he’s never faced an election quite like this one. Neither have we.

With less than three weeks until Americans head to the polls Nov. 8 to decide who will be our next president, many of us are feeling severe election fatigue. We survived the debates. Now we just want it to be over.

But civics teachers such as Werenka are facing an especially difficult challenge this fall. In between the latest headlines and allegations, they have to teach students about the process and why their voice matters. Perhaps the hardest part? Teaching students to talk civilly about differing views during a very uncivil election.

“It’s not as much an election as it is a reality show,” says Werenka.

Werenka, a self-described “policy wonk,” says this election, not surprisingly, has been the most challenging of his career to teach.

He says the 2000 election was tough, too, but “the country was prepared to accept (George W.) Bush or (Al) Gore. You didn’t see the rhetoric like you do now.”

“Rhetoric” may be too kind.

At the start of the school year, middle school teachers were especially concerned about how to approach the election with their students, says Werenka, who also heads Troy’s social studies department.

“My advice to them was teach the process, don’t teach the personalities,” says Werenka, “and that’s what I’m doing.”

For Werenka, that means diving into the electoral college, the history of presidential debates and focusing on swing states. In his classroom hangs a large C-SPAN map that breaks down electoral votes nationwide. The walls are covered in political signs dating all the way back to the Ford-Dole ticket in 1976.

During his first-hour government and civics class Thursday morning, Werenka talked about why debates matter and how poor body language can hurt a candidate, as it did Gore in 2000. He said Richard Nixon “didn’t really get TV” during the first ever presidential debate in 1960.

Werenka usually likes to have his students really delve into the policy stances of both candidates – where they are feasible and where they aren’t – but that’s been another challenge.

“There’s not a lot of ‘there’ there” in terms of proposed policies, says Werenka.

But through all the madness, there are still valuable lessons to be taught. When that decade-old audio tape surfaced a few weeks ago of Republican nominee Donald Trump bragging about fondling women without their consent, Werenka used it in the context of its impact on the election and polls. And for the SnapChat and Twitter generation, what you say matters – even years later.

“I told my students you have to be careful what you say or Tweet,” he says. “You have to assume that everything you say is recorded.”

Despite all the strong feelings on both sides, Werenka says the discourse has been largely civil in his classes. At the start of the school year, he laid out the ground rules for his students.

“I said we are going to have opportunities to discuss things but we’re going to model civil behavior,” says Werenka. “Let’s model the behavior we wish we’d see on the campaign trail.”

As his class wound down Thursday morning, Werenka asked his students, mostly 11th-graders, about what’s ahead in this election.

“There are 19 days left,” he said. “What do we do?”

“We pray,” said one student.

Twitter: @mfeighan