Civil Discourse Trumps Trash Talk as Hamden High Schoolers Discuss Election | Connecticut Public Radio

Civil Discourse Trumps Trash Talk as Hamden High Schoolers Discuss Election

Oct 31, 2016

As kids poured into David Coss's AP government and politics class, the conversations had already started.

But before they got down to business, a student let him know that his computer just made a sound.

"Oh, my computer's talking," Coss responded. "Okay. It's probably -- who's hacking into my computer?"

Several of this students called out, "The Russians." 

"The Russians, right," Coss said. "As we learned last night. Me and Vladimir Putin. "

Coss's dry humor is a constant presence in his class. And so are the front page newspapers that dangled on a wall, noting points in history, starting with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

It was the day after the last presidential debate, and it was time for a debrief. Coss wanted these 15- to 17-year-olds to know what issues the candidates discussed. He asked students to identify one issue each candidate handled well, and one they handled poorly.

Credit WNPR/David DesRoches

Pencils hit the paper, and a few minutes later the discussion started. They talked about all the points you'd expect them to hit -- women's rights, immigration, racial tensions.

They all agreed that this election and the debates have strained relationships. One of the most frustrating things for student Rody Conway was that even when he's talking with friends about it, the topic strays into personality over substance.

"Informal debates that you'd have with your friends usually boil down to -- in this election -- not whether or not you agree with the policies of the candidates, but whether or not you like them as a person," Conway said. "And I just think that's ludicrous."

He said that even though Donald Trump can be "detestable," he'd vote for the real estate mogul if he could.

For Sophie Haxhi, 15, this election has become personal.

"My boyfriend just went into the army, and I don't want Trump -- someone that is asking about, um, atomic bombs and things, and someone that can be riled by the simplest things, and have absolutely no control -- in power of the army and being in command," Haxhi said.

Abby Jang, 17, said she's curious to see how a businessman like Trump would handle the job.

"I kind of just try to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, even though his side has been very attacking [of] me and people like me, personally, because he's just different. And I want to see what would happen to this country," Jang said.

Students raised their hand to offer a counter opinion. But nobody was chomping at the bit to be heard, and nobody sighed in frustration when they weren't called. Inside the walls of Coss's class, the tone was different from the one seen on cable TV and between the candidates. It's... civil.

A wall in David Coss's classroom.
Credit WNPR/David DesRoches

Some students stuck around after class to talk more. Even though none of them could vote, I took a quick poll to see where they stood.

It was four for Trump, seven for Hillary Clinton, and three undecided.  

After everyone left, I asked Coss how this election has changed his approach to teaching, if at all.

He said this election is atypical -- and that's made his job easier. The spectacle of it all has helped keep the students engaged.

"I think they come to the table with a reaction to something," Coss said, "and then from that reaction, hopefully it turns into a teachable moment -- on the electoral college, the primary process, privacy, the role of government."

He told me about how his students recently attended a forum on the presidential election that included high school and college students. They didn't come back angry or riled up about issues. They came back surprised at the civility shown. For Coss, that gave him hope.

"It made me think about how this whole election process is socializing these kids," he said. "What will their expectations be in 2020, what will they be in 2018, do they expect, or will they want to see this type of behavior going forward?"

While he was concerned about what  could happen, Coss said watching his students classroom behavior gives him faith that maybe the next generation will take the high road.