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The Challenge Of Teaching 8th Grade Politics In 2016

Lee Hale
Mr. Steve Pollock has been teaching politics to 8th graders for a long time and he says there's never been a year quite like 2016.


It’s always tricky to discuss politics in the workplace, especially in an election year like 2016. But, what if discussing politics is your job? For 8th grade US History teachers across the state, it is.

At Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan, student McKaylin Schilling ask a question that’s on a lot of voters minds in an election year.

"How much do our votes really matter?" asks Schilling. "Because I know that we’re not actually voting for the president, but we’re voting to let the people vote for the president."

Her teacher, Steve Pollock, handles the question like a pro. He jumps into a description about the electoral college and talks about what this election means for a Utah voter.

Pollock has been teaching US history to middle school students for the past 19 years and he loves discussing politics with his students around election time. But, he admits, 2016 is unlike any other year.

"It’s kinda scary to talk about it in the classroom a little bit," says Pollock. "Because there really are some big emotions that come out when we talk about the presidential candidates”

He says class discussions have been really divisive. The students have strong feelings this year, particularly when it comes to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Whenever a student goes as far as saying they hate one of the candidates, Mr. Pollock pushes back immediately.

"What exactly do you not like about them? What is it? Tell me," says Pollock.

He challenges his students to base their feelings on platforms and policies rather than news headlines and dinner table talk.

There's another message he shares again and again.

“You have to show respect for the presidency," says Pollock. "The office of the presidency. You need to show respect.”

It’s obvious that an election year like this one matters a lot to Mr. Pollock. He’s passionate, and at times he has to keep his feelings in check. I ask how often his own views slip out.

"It comes out all the time," Pollock laughs. "I try not to. I get emails from parents when it comes out too much.”

Although, he really does want his students to think for themselves. And this coming Tuesday, they’ll have a chance to express those thoughts.

All of Elk Ridge Middle School students will be voting in a school-wide mock election.

Mr. Pollock is excited to see which candidate his students choose. Because, regardless of who wins it will make for some great classroom discussions.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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