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The 2016 election and the tumultuous start to Donald Trump’s presidency, which hits the 100-day mark next week, have presented civics teachers in red, blue and purple states alike with a double-edged sword. Students are suddenly eager to talk politics and government, but the hyper-partisan reality beyond school walls makes it hard to pull off these discussions in class. In a sharply divided nation, even musty topics like the filibuster can spark heated exchanges and raise parental hackles.

To harness student passion without bogging down in partisan muck, teachers are wielding a bevy of ed-tech tools — ranging from online role-playing games and issue quizzes to social media platforms where teachers share strategies for leading political discussions and students collaborate to try to influence public policy.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (on screen) overlooks the AP government class of Jo Boggess Phillips in Ripley, West Virginia Credit: Jo Boggess Phillips

“It’s hard to teach students about government when the atmosphere is so toxic,” said Jo Boggess Phillips, a longtime AP government and civics teacher in Ripley, West Virginia. “If parents think you’re biased, and it’s not their kind of bias, then it becomes an issue.”

Phillips sought refuge from the rancor in iCivics, an online platform of interactive games, such as “Win the White House,” “Lawcraft,” and “Do I have a Right?,” in which students take on the roles of candidates vying for the presidency, legislators wrangling votes for bills, constitutional lawyers arguing cases and other players in civic life. Founded in 2009 by the retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics also offers readings and standards-aligned lesson plans about the Constitution, the three branches of government, media and influence, and many other topics.

“The games were like a safe harbor, where students could learn about the process without being bombarded by partisan rhetoric,” said Phillips. “I could say, ‘Hang on a second, this is how it’s supposed to work.’ ”

Last fall, the folks at iCivics anticipated a 20 to 30 percent bump in game plays, in line with what happened in the election year of 2012. Instead, game plays jumped nearly 100 percent in October, and 300 percent in November, when their games were played about 3 million times.

Tim Matthews, a middle school history teacher outside Boston, uses iCivics games to teach the Constitution, which his class calls “the rulebook.” While only so many teenagers are intrinsically interested in a topic like the electoral college, Matthews admits, all of them want to win. “They go nuts,” he said. “They go home and keep playing and playing, and it reinforces everything.”

The virtual governments of iCivics aren’t rife with scandal, graft, dark money or the sort of ad hominem attacks that characterized the 2016 campaign. Still, players do encounter realities such as lobbyists and negative campaign ads. And according to Louise Dubé, iCivics executive director, “at a certain point, the role of iCivics stops, and we’re in the hands of teachers to carry on with more current issues, and push kids to find evidence to back up their arguments.”

Indeed, teachers often use iCivics games as a prelude to more topical class conversations. “Take a game like, ‘Do I have a Right?’ ” said Brian Furgione, a middle-school social studies teacher near Orlando, Florida. “In the game world, students argue the constitutionality of cases, and that gives them a great foundation in the Bill of Rights, so we can get into the dicier, real-world issues during class.”

For project-based civic learning, there’s the web-based “Civic Action Project” (CAP) created by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. The site offers students lessons on how to research issues they care about —from cyber bullying to gang violence—and connect those issues with public policy; it also offers multimedia toolkits for next steps, like filming a public service announcement and launching petitions, and social-media platforms where students post videos about their projects and get advice and feedback from a national network of CAP participants.

“The games were like a safe harbor, where students could learn about the process without being bombarded by partisan rhetoric. I could say, hang on a second, this is how it’s supposed to work.”

“We encourage students to put their whole project experience on video, [to document] every time they canvas a community or meet with a city councilor,” said David De La Torre, the CAP program manager. “Many of these issues have been around for decades. We want current students to pass the baton to the next year’s students who can build off their efforts.”

Even if students don’t engage directly with policy, simply engaging with each other about public issues takes solid preparation. According to Paula McAvoy, a co-author of The Political Classroom (2014) and program director of the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “the main challenge teachers face is finding resources that are current, present multiple and competing views, and are at the right reading level.”

One option is, an online compendium of capsule arguments for and against everything from school uniforms to the minimum wage. Another online resource that has seen a spike in use since the 2016 campaign is Newsela, which compiles both primary sources, such as presidential speeches, and topical articles from publications such as the Washington Post, Scientific American and the Associated Press, and then adjusts the reading level of the texts to grades two through 12.

Teachers also bolster politics and policy discussions by directing students to the online policy quiz, where an algorithm crunches their responses to questions on everything from legalizing marijuana to jury trials for terror suspects, and spits out the percentage to which their views align with those of political candidates (there are also issue polls and candidate profiles on the site).

While a slim majority of the K-12 educators in a February 2017 Education Week survey said they had not avoided discussing controversial current events in class this year, 42 percent said it was difficult to talk about national politics with students, and 28 percent said they expressly avoided the topic. Many teachers (44 percent, according to the survey) don’t feel prepared to lead discussions that may get emotional and heated, especially with a rise in reports of bullying and uncivil discourse related to national politics and signature issues of the campaign such as immigration.

The iCivics games were played more than 3 million times last November, a 300 percent increase over the previous year.

Hearing about these challenges prompted faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education to launch a website called “One and All,” on which scholars and classroom teachers share strategies — via video, text, and podcast — for fostering student empathy and respect, and leading debates of controversial issues in class.  The site encourages teachers to contribute their own approaches via Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.

Most K-12 students can’t vote, but talking politics in class is more than academic. While adults can and do avoid discussing controversial issues with those who disagree (even online), kids in school are stuck with each other. And McAvoy thinks we need more school-based political discussions in a time of national divisiveness, not fewer.

“One thing that came out of our research is that students are fascinated by the fact that their peers have different opinions,” she said. “It opens them up to the idea that the world is complex, that people don’t all think like me, and I still like these people.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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