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Ronny Risinger teaches an AP government class at the Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy (LASA) in Austin, Texas on November 2, 2016. Lillian Hotz sits in the front row of his class. | Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Teaching to the Sext: How Texas Educators Tackle a NSFW Election

Texas teachers are finding plenty of lessons for students in the 2016 presidential election, but discussing some of the racier news requires a careful approach.

Ronny Risinger directed his students’ attention to the projection screen where an image of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner posing topless in a mirror appeared next to the headline “Stroking Gun: Weiner sext probe found dirt on Hill.”

The AP U.S. government teacher at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy chose to delve into Weiner’s most recent sexting scandal Monday — just the latest in a string of salacious stories surrounding this year’s presidential election. In the final stretch of an especially contentious race, educators are being creative about how they transmit that information to their students, with some using political gaffes as teaching tools and others censoring lewd material.

“This election, as far as the number of scandals, is outrageous,” Risinger said. “It took me two blackboards to write down the scandals, and I never even got to the Donald Trump side of it.”

After Monday’s class, Risinger admitted he had worried that uncensored photos of the sexting politician might pop up on the screen as he navigated an article about Weiner on the New York Post’s website. But the topic was crucial to explaining why the FBI had recently reopened its investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, he said.

Other teachers across Texas have faced similar queasy moments as they attempt to engage with this campaign season’s inappropriate content in the classroom. And because students can use social media to tap into that content more easily than ever on their own, teachers find themselves fielding tricky election-related questions and concerns.

October’s leaked 2005 recording of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump making lewd remarks about women sparked a major uproar in the Republican party, with many politicians pulling or reserving their support from the candidate.

Though the event was newsworthy, teachers struggled to find the best way to address it in class.

“No, no, no, no,” Boerne Champion High School government teacher Kim Grosenbacher said when asked if she showed the video to her students. But they had already watched it or read about it on their own, as the story flooded media outlets.

Trump’s gaffe provided Grosenbacher an opportunity to remind her students about Internet safety. “If you’re ever going to be in a situation where you’re going to run for office, this stuff could come back and haunt you, too,” she recalled saying.

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Grosenbacher has also used the election’s divisive nature as a teaching tool. When she showed her students clips of the presidential debates, many were shocked by what they saw as a lack of substantive content and preponderance of bickering.

“Sometimes they really took a step back and said, ‘These candidates are acting like children. They’re acting like my little brother and sister,’” Grosenbacher said. “I’ve never had that in an election, where candidates have gone below the belt … As a teacher I’m going forward and saying, ‘This is what not to do in a debate.’”

St. Joseph High School senior Brooke Reaves, in Victoria, was happy that her government teacher addressed Trump’s comments about women head on, telling male students that what Trump referred to as “locker room talk” was unacceptable. “That’s one of my favorite parts about what he said,” said Reaves, who is a Libertarian. “Maybe about the whole election in general.”

This election “has created more of a spectacle” than past ones, said Cory Colby, an assistant professor at Lone Star College, a community college in Tomball that also serves high school students seeking dual credit.

Colby, who started out teaching junior high school social studies more than nine years ago, said he would be cautious introducing the leaked Trump recording to middle schoolers. “I’m more conscious of the fact that their parents are still making many many of those decisions,” he said. “I can’t assume that they all knew that it happened.”

This year’s electoral politics are changing more quickly than elections past, Colby said. When former President George H.W. Bush ran for office in 1988, his campaign would take one or two days to issue public responses, Colby recalled. Today’s candidates issue key public statements using Twitter and other fast-paced social media sites. “The turnaround time on how fast you get a full-blown social media blitz is remarkable. It won’t take a full day,” he said.

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So Colby adapted. He had his class subscribe to a group list on the site remind.com, which allows him to rapidly send links to breaking news articles to all of their phones at once. He’s flexible about his curriculum, shifting the lesson plan to include an objective earlier than he had planned.

The tone of this election is also distinctly negative, leaving students worried instead of excited.

The left-leaning nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center coined “the Trump effect” in April, after its unscientific survey of 2,000 K-12 teachers showed the majority reported seeing an increase in bullying among students since the start of this election. More than two-thirds of teachers reported that students who were immigrants and Muslim expressed fear about what might happen to them after the election.

Trump has campaigned on promises to cut off immigration by Muslims and Mexicans.

Most of the students in Lilia Perales’ eighth-grade U.S. history class at Memorial Junior High in Eagle Pass Independent School District are Mexican or Mexican-American. “Students will ask me questions like, ‘Can Trump really get rid of all the Mexicans here?’” Perales said. She guesses that some have undocumented family members at risk of deportation.

Perales does not spend much time teaching current events, but her students often bring up the election. During a unit on President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 executive order to move Native Americans west of the Mississippi River, students asked whether Trump could move them south of the U.S. border if he became president.

“They keep referring back and saying, ‘Well, look at Jackson. He did it!’” Perales said.

As a Mexican-American, Perales said she finds it difficult to be nonpartisan when responding to her students. “I was scared for them, especially last year, when Trump first started talking about it. I would just tell them that the president doesn’t make laws. He has to have the backup of Congress,” she said.

It can be difficult for teachers not to inject their personal opinions into their lessons.

Elizabeth Morphis teaches seventh-grade Texas History at Kealing Middle School. Her students participated in a town hall meeting in Oct. | Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune
Elizabeth Morphis teaches seventh-grade Texas History at Kealing Middle School. Her students participated in a town hall meeting in Oct. |
Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Kealing Middle School teacher Elizabeth Morphis said she wants her students to be interested in civic engagement, no matter their political affiliation. She used a video clip of Trump standing behind Clinton during the second presidential debate to talk to students about how bullying is difficult for adults to handle, as well as children.

But she also added that Clinton didn’t loom behind Trump during the debate because she has the privilege of being an experienced politician.

Bryan Henry, 12th-grade government teacher at Kingwood High School in Humble Independent School District, said all teachers are somewhat partisan: Even if they don’t explicitly state their political preferences, they curate their lessons based on their personal priorities.

“Something I find personally offensive might be something I’m more prone to end up mentioning,” he said.

Liberal Arts and Science Academy’s Risinger is openly Republican, having served as a delegate at this year’s Republican National Convention. A self-described “reserved” Trump supporter, he challenges his students, who are mostly liberal, to think as clearly about Clinton’s failings as a candidate as they do Trump’s failings.

A major lesson is that politicians on both sides can be “hypocrites.”

Twelfth grader Ellanora Childs said Risinger talks a lot about the issues with Clinton’s campaign. “He thinks we don’t hear about that as much,” Childs said. Most of the class period is spent debating, with him and other students, which can be exciting — but recently, has been tiring.

“I’m sick of the election,” she said.

Read more Tribune coverage of the election here:

  • A since-deleted tweet sent from Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s account on Tuesday used an obscene term to describe Hillary Clinton. Miller’s staff claimed he had been hacked, then apologized for a mistaken retweet.
  • Sure, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on among the state’s elected officials, but there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on with Texas voters, too.

Author: ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

About The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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