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Taking on Trump in Baltimore County classrooms

John Lee

It was the day before the inauguration of Donald Trump, and students in Sandra Skordalos’s 12th grade A-P government class were debating the President-elect’s actions. These students at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Dundalk were not giving Trump an easy time.

Yara Daraiseh scoffed at Trump for not understanding the Presidency, treating it as though he will be the CEO calling all of the shots.

"But when you’re a president of a democratic government … you don’t have all the power," she said.

Edison Lopez and Austin Dillon mixed it up over Betsy Devos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary. Lopez objected to an education secretary with no public school experience.

"I don’t understand how anybody could think that’s a smart idea," Lopez said. "Like, you wouldn’t go to a stylist that doesn’t know how to cut your hair."

"Well, our current secretary of defense has never held a military position," Dillon countered. "He has a degree in Medieval History. And he’s secretary of defense. So I don’t think qualifications really matter like that."

Teachers in Baltimore County say this election season has been like no other in the classroom. Trump’s unorthodox style combined with the power of social media have students engaged and debating the President-elect.

Trump is providing plenty of material for Paul Latanishen’s 9th grade social studies class at Sparrows Point High School.

Latanishen first showed a clip of Congressman John Lewis saying he would not attend Trump’s swearing in today, calling him illegitimate. Trump of course fired back via Twitter, calling Lewis, a civil rights legend, all talk. Dozens of Democratic congressmen said they’ll join Lewis and skip today’s inauguration.

By a show of hands, seven of Latanishen’s two dozen students sided with those congressmen. Jake Wolfe was one of them.

Wolfe said, "If I was like a Democrat and I was in his party and I worked with John Lewis for awhile, I’d probably be with him more than the new president."

Sidney Wolinski saw it differently.

"If everyone from that party doesn’t go, then that will just make them look bad," he said. "And you know it’s a new president so you kinda gotta work together."

Latanishen, who is in his 13th year of teaching, says he’s seeing an unprecedented level of political engagement from high school freshmen. He says a big reason is they have their phones 24/7 and can be dinged with a notification any time.

"With Donald Trump, the number of Twitter followers, the mentions, and the way he uses social media, they can’t ignore it," Latanishen said.

Add to the social media mix the proliferation of fake news. There were false claims that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor, and that the pope did not endorse Donald Trump. But an analysis by Buzzfeed News found that in the last three months of the election, fake stories like those got more clicks than real ones.

Both Latanishen and Skordalos said they are now teaching students how to tell fake news from the real thing.

"You need to double check and make sure," Skordalos said. "Like find several sources that this is actually what’s happening and not just going with that first article that’s out there."

Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance said they will look at revising the curriculum to teach students what’s relevant and what isn’t.

"Folks want to make sure that when something’s reported, that kids understand the difference between what’s real and what’s not and how do we as adults model that as well," he said.

As for teaching Trump, Latanishen said the question going forward will be, Is the President-elect an anomaly, or the new normal?

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