Facing History, the Presidential Election and Fake News
An interview with Marco Sanchez, MS social studies teacher.
[From The Calhoun Chronicle, Winter 2017]
Marco teaches American history, 1800s to present day, to eighth graders. We asked him how he approached this year’s election and the lessons of history, and how he encourages students to become engaged citizens.
Why teach civics?
Looking at history from multiple angles is probably the most essential, critical learning skill that we can have when it comes to not only dealing with history, but dealing with the world today. Across the board we have a lot of really good human beings who are seeing the world in really different ways. Trying to sympathize and empathize will help us understand.
How did you approach discussions on the presidential election?
There was no way in good conscience we could not talk about the election. It was such big news . . . And it’s funny how things like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah or Saturday Night Live will bring it to [students’] attention in a real way. All of a sudden they want to discuss it and know what’s really going on; they want to pull the layers back. So we spoke about it. But [the question for me was] what role do I play in that discussion?
My job with students is to have them reach their own conclusions. I want them to be able to create a really well-constructed argument based on facts. So what I had to do was lay out the facts, lay out the proposed policies from multiple sources, have them investigate those sources to look at the candidates, their viewpoints and what they said, and then get them to make an argument for who they believed in.
One of the ways that we approached this year’s election was by analyzing elections of the past. We looked at every time the popular vote and the electoral vote went into conflict and what happened in the world—what was going on at that time and what changes were enacted. We looked at the elections of Al Gore and George W. Bush; Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden; and John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. We reviewed the similarities, and every single time, [the election] had an amazing impact. When Rutherford B. Hayes won over Samuel J. Tilden, it ended Reconstruction and led to the rise of the KKK in the South. When it happened with Jackson and Adams, it was called a “corrupt bargain” and changed politics forever; it led to the modern-day system we now have, where electors vote as a block, according to the way the state votes, instead of voting their conscience. When it happened after Al Gore and George W. Bush, it helped lead to the partisan politics we have today, and to the rise of Fox News and the really divergent streams of media.
So what’s going to happen now? We’ve got to be aware of which direction we’re going; it might be a change that we cringe at, or it might be a change that we’ve needed for a long time. It might get people standing up and doing things a different way.
How do you help them become critical thinkers?
The most fun part of my job is when I ask them to read about one topic from multiple texts. For instance, I asked them to read about the Mexican-American War in [three different books]. They look at me like, Why do I have to read about it in three books? This isn’t fair! And I send them home and they come back to class the next day and they’re angry. I ask, “What’s the matter?” and I’m sitting back, just chuckling in my own head; I just stir the pot—right? I stir the pot and their little minds are going crazy, and they’re like, “Who lied to us? Whose textbook is lying?” I say, “What do you mean?” They say, “One of these books is lying, because they told totally different stories!” And then we dig in. Really look at where the differences lie. And they realize that nobody lied; [the textbooks] basically all say the same thing, just accentuated certain facts and minimized others. And that’s when we’ve got to be careful.
How did you approach the issue of the media and “fake news”?
One of the first things I did was teach them how to source.
I asked them to bring in materials—and a lot of times it was fake news on Facebook. People put a lot of money into making us believe that fake news is real news, because it’s literally money in their account whenever it gets clicked on; they’ve got millions of dollars invested in tricking us. So one of the first things we had to do with absolute fake news is get it out of there.
I encouraged them not to rely on one news source, and more than anything else, don’t let somebody tell you what somebody else said. Go find the actual document, find the transcript, go find the actual speech and watch yourself, and then make your judgment.
As far as partisan news—that becomes much more difficult. What I recommend is, if you really want to know about a story, watch it on multiple outlets. I introduced them to Al Jazeera, the BBC, Reuters—news outlets they didn’t know existed. We looked at an MSNBC take on something and then a Fox News take on the same exact story; it was the same dynamic as
with the multiple textbooks—same exact issue, totally different points of view.
We took some time to look at [negative] misleading bar graphs on the economy under Obama, and stories in which Donald Trump was misquoted. We talked about how harmful it is to quote people out of context.
If you open yourself up to more sources of news, then you’re able to look at the story from different points of view. It’s about being a critical thinker in a modern space.
What do you hope the students took away?
Some of them are going to be voting in the next election.
When they go to college and get passionate, [when] they become the Bernie Sanders, the Hillary Clinton, the Donald Trump supporters of tomorrow—marching and carrying signs—I want them to do it in a way that’s backed by ideas and thoughts and well-constructed arguments. To make them better critical thinkers—that’s the goal.