These 7th graders are better at debating than the presidential candidates

NEW YORK -- The 2016 presidential debates are finally behind us, and with Election Day just weeks away the American public will soon head to the polls and make their choice.

But the debates left voters across the country feeling frustrated and fed up with the constant insults, back-and-forth bickering, name-calling and interruptions that rendered many answers unintelligible. Is it even possible for two candidates with opposing views to engage in a civil conversation about solutions for the country?

At Lexington Academy in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, a group of seventh graders is learning how to do just that.

Through the Great Books Foundation’s “Shared Inquiry” teaching method, the students study how to thoughtfully shape their ideas, then share and discuss them with a group. A strong emphasis is placed on providing evidence for their opinions and showing respect for their peers who may have differing views.

 Those skills have been hard to come by throughout this presidential campaign, whether you look at the candidates themselves or the legions of advisers and TV pundits arguing on their behalf.

“If you’re watching FOX, CNN, MSNBC, it doesn’t matter. Watch adults talk to each other today. We’ve forgotten how to have these arguments that are respectful, that are substantial,” said Fred Hang, a professional learning consultant with Great Books Foundation who is working with the students.

On the day we visited Lexington Academy, Hang was leading a discussion on immigration with ten students — seven of whom come from immigrant families.

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Fred Hang leads the group in a discussion.

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Throughout the conversation, students listened carefully to the ideas of their peers before politely speaking up to express their own. They referred to each other as “colleagues” and offered to help whenever someone was struggling to explain his or her thought process.

“Since we started the Great Books Foundation Shared Inquiry, my students’ attitudes to one another have changed significantly,” teacher Danielle Taylor said. “[They] can very easily disagree, but do so respectfully.”

After their noticeably civil debate, we wondered what advice the students might have for America’s presidential candidates. So we showed them clips from the presidential and vice presidential debates to get their take.

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Cristal Gonzales, Emily Young, Chris Ramirez, Abdoulaye Gueye, Andre Lopez, and Jalynn Estrella watch a clip of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from the second presidential debate.

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After watching one clip, they immediately picked up on the candidates’ tones — “They have an attitude!” — and their inability to refrain from talking over each other.

“The two presidential candidates are just screaming back and forth at each other,” said Abdoulaye Gueye, one of the students in the group. Another student, Edgar Leon, said the candidates should be setting a better example for children that may be watching.

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Lexington Academy principal Antonio Hernandez

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Lexington Academy principal Antonio Hernandez was glad to hear his students speaking up and applying their knowledge. 

“We’ve seen kids go from not having thoughts, or not wanting to share thoughts — because all kids have thoughts, all kids have ideas, but not knowing how to share that — to really knowing how to take turns, when to interrupt politely, when to disagree politely. Now they’re full of ideas.”

They weren’t afraid to let us know what those ideas are, and what they’ve learned through the Shared Inquiry program. One common theme: respect. 

“If you’re trying to get someone to agree with you, at least try to be respectful. And if they still don’t agree with you, listen to their opinion and maybe you might even change yours,” Emily Young explained.

Cristal Gonzales echoed that sentiment: “By showing respect to others, you’re showing respect to yourself.”

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Cristal Gonzales talks to a fellow student during a discussion about immigration.

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Hang, Taylor, and Hernandez expect these students to take their new skills with them into the real world — and hopefully contribute to a more civil society.

“It’s at the core of a democracy,” Hernandez explained. “Being able to have differing opinions, differing ideas, but coming to the table and sharing those ideas, and being able to move forward with those ideas.”

If seventh graders can do it, hopefully our politicians can too.