Teachers ask themselves: How do you teach Trump?

From Donald Trump's brashness to questions over Hillary Clinton's email, the presidential race is a live social studies lesson for students.
Published February 15 2016
Updated February 16 2016

In a crowded seventh-grade classroom at Pinellas Park Middle School, civics teacher Dave Hamilton flashed the results of the New Hampshire primary on a smartboard, with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican field.

The reaction was swift, with a chorus of "Ew, why?"

With a frown, Dianerra Justiniano, 12, asked: "If Donald Trump becomes president, do you think things would be bad?"

Trump, the brash, trash-talking billionaire, has shocked the political establishment with his surprisingly successful run for president. He has led the Republican field in the polls and provided a steady stream of irreverent and vulgar statements for pundits to dissect.

For civics and government teachers, who have to explain how the American political system works, Trump's candidacy has been both a blessing and a curse. Many of their students hear every cringe-worthy comment and come to class with tough questions. But, some teachers ask themselves, how do you teach Trump?

"I hate to say it, but there's something fun and childish about people trash-talking each other that appeals to 17- and 18-year-olds," said Tom Chapman, a government teacher at Bloomingdale High in Hillsborough County.

Dave Rosenberger, principal of Pinellas Park Middle, said his civics teachers are having a blast with the runup to the 2016 election. The candidates' off-color remarks — led most memorably by reality TV star and businessman Trump — draw students into lessons about the separation of powers and what it means to be a naturalized citizen.

"I tell you, what a riot," he said. "I think you have families at home saying, 'Oh, can you believe he said that?' or 'Did you hear what he said?' and the kids bring that to school."

When Trump questioned Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's citizenship — as someone born in Canada to an American mother — it was a way to talk to students about the qualifications for the presidency, Chapman said. Likewise, Stan Harbaugh, a civics teacher at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, said he has used political candidates' statements to remind his students about the checks and balances of American government. Could Trump really build a wall on the Mexican border? Could Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders really make college free?

"Everyone comes in thinking that the president is the most powerful person in the country," Harbaugh said.

Trump isn't the only candidate providing fodder for classroom discussion.

Republican Ben Carson said Egyptian pyramids were built to store grain, not as tombs for the pharaohs. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was criticized for calling the children of undocumented immigrants "anchor babies." Democratic contender Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account during her time as the secretary of state has raised serious questions, too.

"Hillary Clinton is very polarizing," Harbaugh said. "I certainly have students who tell me that Hillary should be arrested."

Harbaugh, like other teachers, said he is careful to focus on facts and to be cautious about hot-button campaign issues, like gun control or abortion.

"We never want to be biased or skewed," he said.

Chapman said the goal isn't to change minds, but to encourage students to become active citizens.

"I love any opportunity for kids to look inside the Constitution," he said.

At Pinellas Park Middle, Rosenberger said nothing is off limits.

Nothing? In an election cycle like this?

Just last week, a woman at a Trump rally in New Hampshire used a vulgar word to describe Cruz — a synonym for a part of a woman's anatomy — and Trump repeated it to the crowd. In November, he said he would bring back waterboarding, a controversial interrogation technique prohibited by President Barack Obama. In December, he said Clinton "got schlonged" by Obama in the 2008 election. And he opened his campaign in the summer by calling immigrants drug pushers and rapists.

Rosenberger said the trick is not to react. Students know if their teacher is embarrassed by vulgarity, he said.

"The kids sense that. It's like a shark in a pool of blood," he said. "My teachers are seasoned. They won't blush."

Hamilton said that his students have strong opinions and aren't afraid to share them. Sometimes those opinions are a reflection of what they hear and see at home, he said. Many of them are plugged into media on their phones.

His strategy is to emphasize his classroom motto: "We attack the issues, not the people."

Even for teenagers who enjoy a little trash-talking, the political rhetoric can be upsetting, even frightening.

Karen Midkiff, another civics teacher at Pinellas Park Middle, said some of her students get emotional about what they're hearing and seeing in the news.

One of her students, Nadine Islamova, 12, has been a vocal opponent of Trump. Asked why, she said he was "rude." More than that, she fears that Trump doesn't like her because she's a Muslim.

"I heard that he didn't like Muslims and he didn't want them in the country," she said. "If he became president, I wouldn't be here."

Harbaugh said Muslim students at his school have voiced similar concerns. A student asked him: "If Donald Trump is elected will all the Muslims have to leave the country?"

"You have to calm students' fears," he said.

Several students at Pinellas Park Middle said some of the craziness in this election year has them paying more attention to politics than ever before.

Emma Fabbiha, 13, said she thinks that's true of adults, too — and she knows why.

"This election is getting a lot more attention because of Donald Trump," she said.

Skyler Overton, 13, said she watches the news on TV every day.

"I don't like Trump and I don't like Hillary," she said. "Trump made racist statements. I don't want to be sexist and I think it's great that a woman's running, but I don't like what happened with her email."

Josh Brown, 13, puts his interest in this year's election in the category of reality TV: "I pay more attention to that because it's kind of stupid."

"I'd rather have Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump, based on what I know about them," he said.

In Hamilton's class, where he breaks down the New Hampshire primary results by gender and age, the questions come fast. Hamilton answers some and swiftly dodges others.

"Why did Donald Trump win?"

Hamilton: "He's brash, he says what's on his mind. He doesn't have a filter, per se, and some people like that."

"What's going to happen with Hillary's email?"

Hamilton: "I couldn't tell you what's going to happen."

"Who will you be voting for?"

Hamilton: "I will never tell you who I vote for and I hope no teacher ever would."

"Do you think Donald Trump will get elected?"

Hamilton pauses. "Do I think Donald Trump is going to get elected? Stranger things have happened."

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly.