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Teachers Struggle With How To Characterize Vulgar GOP Rhetoric


The catchphrase for the 2008 presidential race was Barack Obama's slogan - yes, we can. The catchphrase for this election - well, if there is one, we probably can't say it on our air. That's because the Republican race has been brutal and sometimes vulgar.


MITT ROMNEY: Donald Trump is a phony - a fraud.

DONALD TRUMP: I could have said Mitt, drop to your knees. He would have dropped to his knees.

MARCO RUBIO: Then he asked for a full-length mirror, maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet. I don't know.

TRUMP: Little Marco, Little Marco.

RUBIO: And you know what they say about men with small hands.

MCEVERS: The trash talk has made for some awkward conversations between teachers and students. Chris Wolak teaches government at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill., just outside of Chicago. And here's how he levels with his students.

CHRIS WOLAK: What I try to do is just get it back to - what are they thinking? - and most of the students are kind of shocked. They're, like - really? - these guys are running for president of the United States? If I said that here at school, I might get suspended for that. So when they're saying it, if we kind of open it up and to kind of challenge or question what's going on, that's OK. The next challenge for us as teachers and for them as student-citizens is - what do we do about it?

MCEVERS: When students hear some of these words - some of this language, the insults, the rhetoric - and they come to you and they ask you about it and they say - what is going on? - we're not supposed to act like this. What specifically do you tell them?

WOLAK: I try to say not too much. I mean, if they say, well, we're not supposed to act like that, I think they know that. We don't have to tell our 17, 18, or 16-year-old citizens that this rhetoric is making a lot of people uncomfortable. They know that.

I think teachers of government and civics - just like, probably, other campaigns on the GOP side - have struggled - like, well, how do we deal with it? And if you're asking me what the answer is, I really don't know. I'm hopeful that we as Americans who value free speech, but also value many other rights and benefits of our society for all, will recognize then and at some point be able to articulate and act that maybe we don't want to go to this way in, you know, finding ways to degrade people.

MCEVERS: It almost sounds like the way to teach the students is to say - don't do what they're doing.

WOLAK: Yeah, yeah (laughter). Well, the dirty trick type of stuff has always been going on. But the respect for the office, the respect for an opponent has also always been there. And it is just - you know, maybe because of social media, maybe because of a sound bite society - whatever the reason is, it seems to be no holds barred. But I do think it is important for us as civics teachers who want our students to be actively engaged to understand that there's a seriousness in this stuff. It's not just go out and rant.

MCEVERS: That's high school government teacher Chris Wolak.

Thank you so much.

WOLAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.