IOWA CITY — City High government teacher John Burkle greeted his last class of the day with feigned boredom.
“It was a pretty boring weekend, right? Not much happened,” he said to students last week after a three-day weekend. “Just a little sexual assault.”
Days earlier, the Washington Post had reported on a 2005 video of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump joking about groping women without their consent. It wasn’t the first time this campaign season that left Burkle struggling to talk about the election with his 16- and 17-year-old students.
“I’ve never been in this situation before,” Burkle told his some 30 students. “I don’t know how to broach or discuss this — and you know I’m pretty candid.”
Talking with children this election cycle has proved difficult for many educators — so many it was the subject of the first question in last week’s presidential debate. Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were asked if they believed they’re modeling the appropriate behavior for students watching as a homework assignment.
Students in Cedar Rapids and in Iowa City have been engaging with campaign rhetoric in the classroom, local educators said. This election cycle, discussions often have turned away from candidates’ platforms and toward personalities.
At Prairie High in Cedar Rapids, government teacher Kent Noska said his lesson plans have focused more on the style of the campaigns than the substance of both candidates’ positions this year than in others.
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His younger students are fairly split on who they’d vote for if they were they 18, he said.
“Even as young people, they understand there’s not much value in a lot of the rhetoric, and it is largely, unfortunately, because of who is involved,” Noska said, naming both candidates. “It is a lot of style and not a lot of substance.”
Burkle too said it has been difficult sometimes to present multiple sides of potentially offensive topics raised on the campaign trail.
“I am struggling a little bit more. Donald Trump makes it harder,” said Burkle, who has taught government for 11 years. “This one, it just seems personal. (Students) feel it’s a personal attack against them, or that this one matters more than others.”
In previous elections, Burkle said he easily could argue the substance of each party’s stance with his Advanced Placement students. But when the issue is sexual assault, he said, it’s difficult to defend different sides.
A Cedar Rapids high school principal‚ Kennedy’s Jason Kline, said he was struggling with similar issues when he posted a Facebook status last weekend condemning Trump’s comments about fondling women. That post quickly went viral and was shared more than 24,000 times before Kline deleted it.
Teachers’ personal political views sometimes are revealed during discussions in upper-level high school classes, educators said, though many try to conceal them.
One of Burkle’s students, Claire Stolley, said she hasn’t been able to pin down Burkle’s own political views.
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“He does a really good job of trying to be impartial,” Claire, 16, said. “I can’t tell who he would vote for — he’s not biased.”
That’s on purpose, Burkle said. During many of his classes in Iowa City — which he quipped is a “liberal Mecca” — he and students have discussed the Affordable Care Act, with Burkle arguing it unnecessarily raises health care costs. They’ve talked about Clinton’s private email server — with Burkle raising questions about its security.
When students’ faulted Trump after Melania Trump plagiarized part of one of first lady Michelle Obama’s speeches, he told them not to hold him accountable for his spouse. He says the same about holding Clinton responsible for Bill Clinton’s marital affairs.
Arguing Republican ideals during those discussions, Burkle said, has usually been easy. They align with the many of the same positions of the party taken during his 11 years as a government teacher.
“I have no problems defending Republican ideas, I’m just finding a harder time defending the candidate, to be honest,” he said. “As someone who’s studied politics for most of my adult life, I don’t really see him as a Republican.”
As for watching the debates for homework, government students at both Prairie High and City High are expected to tune in. Prairie High students joined a live chat with teachers during the first presidential debate, and City High students watched the presidential debate in class and graded the candidates on their performance.
“Whoever becomes president in 2016 is going to have a huge impact on their lives,” Burkle said. “I always think the youth, while they might not be old enough to vote, but it’s going to have a huge impact on their future lives.”