2016 Presidential Election: A Dialogue

This activity has students step into the shoes of voters whose views they may not agree with - and roleplay a dialogue.


Students will: 

  • Read a profile of an American voter this election season and attempt to step into their shoes
  • Explore the difference between debate and dialogue
  • Practice dialogue in a roleplay that is held in a fishbowl

Social and emotional skills:

  • Active listening; listening to diverse opinions
  • Managing feelings
  • Assertiveness
  • Appreciating multiple points of view
  • Conflict resolution skills

Materials Needed

  • Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Space in your class to set up two concentric circles with chairs for the purpose of a fishbowl (see description below)
  • Printouts of these profiles of voters (profiles are also included at the bottom of the lesson)
  • Six name pages or pieces of paper that can serve as name badges


Ask students what they've noticed about how the presidential candidates have engaged with one another over the past months. What words would they use to describe the candidates' interactions? Chart the words students share on the board or on chart paper posted for all to see. 
Next, ask students to raise their hands if they've heard voters argue about who they'll support in the election and why.  Ask students what words they would use to describe these interactions. With a different color marker, chart the words students share. 
Now invite students to look at the words on the chart and discuss some or all of the following questions:
What do you notice about the words on the chart?
What does that tell you about the kind of election season we've had in 2016?
How do you think these words relate to promoting understanding?

Check agenda and goals for the day

Refer back to the chart you created and note that this election period has been combative and has included several acrimonious debates. The country is deeply divided. People have strong feelings about the election, and these emotions tend to play into the conversations, arguments, and debates people have about the candidates and the issues.
In today's lesson, we're going to try to approach things in a different way. Rather than debating the issues, which is a method often used in class to discuss opposing opinions, we're going to have a dialogue instead. 

Introduction: Debate & Dialogue

Introduce students to a comparison of debate and dialogue:
Debate:  Most of us are familiar with debate as a way to argue a point. Debate is an approach that takes place between opponents who are combative, who are trying to prove each other wrong. It's often a zero sum game that's all about one side winning, the other losing. In debate, opponents listen for flaws and weaknesses in the other side's argument. They defend their own assumptions as truth, assuming theirs is the one right answer or perspective. There is little to no investment in the relationship, and in a heated debate people may belittle, criticize, or even ridicule the other side.
Ask students if this sounds familiar.  
Dialogue: Dialogue, on the other hand, is a cooperative endeavor that takes place between partners. In dialogue, people listen so that they can understand the other's position, seeking to find common ground that allows all parties to win. In dialogue, partners reveal their assumptions and reexamine their various positions, assuming that different people have pieces of the answer and that together we can work on stronger solutions. Dialogue requires that the partners respect one another and be open-minded, open to being wrong and open to change.
Ask students, does this sound familiar?
If you have time, ask some of the following questions before going into the substance of your lesson:

  • Which is more prevalent at school: debate or dialogue? 
  • What about in our advisory group? [if your school has one]
  • Which approach do you see used most often in the world beyond school?  The elections?
  • Which approach do you think is most useful when working as a group?
  • Which is most useful when trying to resolve conflict?
  • What is a key skill that is needed for dialogue?

Roleplay/Fishbowl Activity
The American Electorate: A Microcosm

Split your class/advisory into six groups. Provide each group with a nametag or badge, and a profile of one American voter this election season.  (Please download and print this pdf, which includes six profiles.) 
Instruct students to read the profile and explain that their group will be speaking as this voter in a class discussion. Explain that the profiles are adapted from media stories about real people. In their small group, invite students to discuss their profile so that they can better understand the voter whose role they will be playing.  Before beginning the fishbowl activity, ask each group to create a name tent for their voter, which they will put on the floor in front of them. It should be easily readable, and should include which voter they are, Voter A, B, C, D, E or F and three key piece of information about this voter that they'd like the others in the group to know.
Set up your class in a fishbowl - that is, two concentric circles. The inner circle will include one representative from each group; others from their group will be seated behind them in the outer circle.  (See this description of group work strategies for more on how fishbowls work.)   
Ask students to really take on the role of their voter, step into their shoes as they enter into this dialogue.  
Remind students that the goal of the dialogue is to better understand the other people/voters in the group. Explain that there is likely to be disagreement and that's okay. You may want to kick off the discussion by asking the voters in the inner circle a few questions, such as:

  • What do you think is the biggest problem facing this country? Why?
  • Which candidate do you plan to support? Why?
  • What kind of policies do you think would address the problems you are most concerned about?
  • How are you feeling personally about the state of the country or your community?

Allow the dialogue to play out for a bit. Then, give other voters seated in the outside circle a chance to participate. If they would like to take the place of the person from their group in the inner circle, they can tap on that person's shoulder to indicate that they'd like to join the dialogue on behalf of their voter. The two should switch seats. Allow the dialogue to play out again, again encouraging voters to continue to get to know each other. Offer additional chances for students in the outer circle to participate and let the dialogue continue for as long as students are gaining understanding, and interest remains high. Then bring the group back together as a large circle.
Debrief the process using some or all of the following questions:

  • What was that like for you?  Why?
  • What was it like for you to talk with people who, in some cases, had very different opinions from your voter?
  • What was it like for you to step into someone else's shoes and share their perspective?
  • Were there shared concerns even among voters who supported different candidates?
  • What did you learn from this dialogue?


If you were to forget everything you did today, what would be one take away?





You are a 55-year old Muslim man of Lebanese descent living in upstate New York.  You are a registered Republican. 
Your first choice in the primaries was Republican Carly Fiorina, a former executive at Hewlett Packard. As a strong business person, you couldn't understand why she wasn't doing better in the polls. When it was clear she wasn't going to win, you turned to Republican candidate Ben Carson. You felt he was smart and honest, though his lack of foreign policy experience was a concern.
When you and your wife watched the Republican debates, your wife would leave the room because she couldn't stand watching Donald Trump. You yourself had a hard time with some of his behavior and rhetoric. You thought he was pompous and arrogant but you figured that was a strategy. And it worked: he beat 16 candidates and won the Republican nomination.
You figure that Trump is a negotiator: if he wanted to buy a building for $20 million, he would come to the table offering five or maybe ten. That's how you viewed his claim that he'd build a wall on the Mexican border and throw out eleven million undocumented immigrants. It was an aggressive first move. With some back and forth, Trump would arrive at some more reasonable way to deal with illegal immigration. You don't think it's possible or desirable to throw out all undocumented immigrants, except felons of course. But you do think it's important to establish an effective border.
You describe yourself as an American of Arab descent. Both your grandfathers immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon as children. As a third-generation American,  you're sad to have lost touch with your roots, but you do not regret the assimilation that was the cause of this loss. You think that when people come to America, they should assimilate (that is, adapt to the culture and take it in).
You believe that if people want to come here, they should learn to speak English, and they should follow American laws. If they don't want to do that, they shouldn't come. That's not to say that people can't practice their customs, that's fine. But they have to abide by the Constitution.
You think political correctness is destroying the country.  You think Democrats are hypocrites for celebrating America's diversity, but then when talking about immigrants, they claim they are just like us: they work hard and love their families. And that might be true for most immigrants, but it ignores the fact that some people come from places that are vastly different from America and they bring this with them. There are people who love America the way it is and they don't want things to change.  And this is not because they feel hostile towards immigrants or wish them harm. To deny that change is taking place is pushing people to vote for Trump.  It's certainly pushing you in that direction.
(This profile is adapted from an article in the New Yorker magazine.)


You are a 48-year-old third-generation Latino man from West Virginia.  You're running for state senate as a Democrat, but support Trump for president. 
Most people in your area are Trump supporters. This makes perfect sense to you. You figure that if Trump does twenty per cent of what he promises, he'll be a decent President - and maybe he really will "make America great again," as he promises. 
Coal-mining used to be a major industry in your area. It provided good-paying jobs for lots of people and supported the local economy. But the mines have mostly shut down. In recent years, prescription drug addiction has reached new highs and is the cause of a lot of theft in and around town. 
Now when you drive around the area, you see a lot of abandoned houses, dilapidated, with overgrown lawns. Other homes are surrounded by garbage—old cars, tires, toys, broken TVs. It drives you crazy. Coal isn't coming back and West Virginia needs a new industry.  Tourism would be great, but how are you ever going to be able to pull that off when the place looks like a garbage dump?  You love your home and seeing it go to hell makes you angry.
You spent the first 24 years of your adult life in the military. You served all over the world, fought wars, built up other countries and retired as a major. You've been a Democrat since you were 18. Your parents were Democrats, so you were, too. Back then, "being a Republican was like cursing. Republicans were greedy people who didn't take care of the working man."
When you came back from the Army, you realized that most of the politicians in your part of the world, Republicans and Democrats alike, were crooks who didn't care about anyone but themselves.
Most people in your area are registered Democrats, so when you decided to run for local office, you opted to run as a Democrat. In the national elections, though, you haven't always voted for Democrats. And in the 2016 presidential election, you're for Trump. West Virginia is historically Democratic. But in 2000, the state turned Republican.  You believe this happened because Democratic nominee Al Gore was an environmentalist whose election would be very bad for coal. 
Coal is not the only issue though. Trump also appeals to you because of his stance on immigration.  You support Trump's hard stance against illegal immigration, but not because you're prejudiced against Latinos. Your own family comes from Mexico. Your grandfather swam across the Rio Grande to settle north of the border. Your father was born in West Virginia and you were too. But, you argue: "When you start talking about bringing in refugees and when they get here they get medical and dental and they get set up with some funds—what do we get?" So when Donald Trump says he's going to take benefits away from people who come here illegally and give them to people who work, that sounds pretty good to you.. 
Trump's promise to "put America first" resonates with you. It's rare that a national politician seems to care about the situation your state is in. You feel Trump actually cares, which is why you're willing to ignore things he says that sound nuts or that you disagree with.
(This profile is adapted from an article in the New Yorker magazine.)


You are a 38-year-old male of Cuban descent.  You've voted Republican your whole life, but you're not sure how you'll vote this year. 
You come from a long line of civic and political leaders who are the Republican bedrock of Florida's Cuban community.  You consider yourself as a Republican through and through.  You've helped build and maintain south Florida's Republican base.
But this year is different. You haven't yet decided whether you'll vote along party lines. Trump's disparaging remarks about Mexicans have given you pause. And you're not alone.  Many in the Cuban-American community express solidarity with other Latin-Americans who see Donald Trump as anti-Hispanic. Trump's nationalistic populism also smacks of the government strongmen many Latin Americans fled to come to the U.S.
Still, you say, "There are aspects of Trump that appeal to parts of the Cuban-American culture: strong leadership, the ability and willingness to say bold things." Trump's strength and his willingness to call it as it is are enticing, especially when faced with Clinton, who's the exact opposite.
The concern for you is when Trump crosses the line "from bold to wild, unpredictable."  You're offended by his crudeness and bullying. His uninformed policy pronouncements worry you. You haven't endorsed Trump or Clinton and are still not sure about your vote. Neither candidate has engaged Cuban or other Hispanic voters with any sincerity, you feel.
On the Cuban American radio station that you listen to, the host has been expressing his concerns about Trump.  He's asked his listeners to compare Trump's claims that "I am your voice" and "I alone can solve" societal ills to the early appeals of authoritarian leaders like Cuba's Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, the late President of Venezuela.
"It goes well beyond immigration to the very nature of our Latin-American problem," this radio host says. "Many of us remember how it starts. It starts with questioning institutions. Then you destroy institutions — you being the only person in the world who can save the nation from collapse." 
Trump's authoritarian attitude worries you.
This profile is adapted from an article in US News.


You are a white female voter from the rustbelt in Ohio.  You want the America of tomorrow to be better for your grandkids. You are undecided about which candidate to support.
You are 68 years old.  You have six children, 25 grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren. You were born in a small city in Ohio's rust belt and have lived here your whole life.  In the 1980s, you worked at a small manufacturing company. That was the last time you had a job. You receive about $700 each month in Supplemental Security Income. $450 Of it goes to rent for your home in the south side of town. This doesn't leave much to live on.
This part of Ohio has been in decline since the 1960s when foreign imports started to undercut the local economy. During the 1980s, the area lost over 25,000 manufacturing jobs. Poverty soared. You can still see the remains of steel mills, a reminder of what used to be. Now they're desolate and weed-covered.
When you show people around your town, you point out: "Where these are trees now, it all used to be mills. ... All these vacant lots here, these all used to be filled with bars and restaurants. That's where the steelworkers, when they would get off, would come." You live in the poorest part of Ohio - one of the poorest parts of the country, in fact.  Systematic problems have plagued your city for decades: a lack of jobs, problems with the education system, rampant violence, and poor employment training are just a few issues that people struggle with.
You voted for Obama in 2000 and 2004 but are undecided this year. You think Clinton is a "nice lady and everything," but it's Bernie Sanders who you were drawn to in the primaries. You liked Sanders' promise of free college because not all of your children were able to afford college.
You've seen a number of the 2016 presidential candidates come through your city, during the primaries. Now again during the presidential election, Trump and Clinton are here every month it seems. You haven't yet heard either candidate discuss what you believe is one of the most pressing issues facing your area: deteriorating infrastructure. There seems to be a lot of interest in Trump—particularly his message about national security. But in the end, you're not sure those are the issues you want to hear about.
You want to hear what they all have to say about how they're going to help communities like yours on infrastructure, education and jobs.
You admit that you're somewhat intrigued by the idea of Clinton becoming the first female president, but you don't actually think either candidate can (or will) help you or your community. You say: "It doesn't really matter to me, because nobody's gonna help me anyway." 
Compilation profile made up of voter profiles from the rustbelt in Ohio featured on CNN and in Mother Jones.


You're a young woman from rural Iowa, currently studying at the Central Iowa Community College.  You caucused for Bernie Sanders in the primaries.  You still "feel the Bern."
As a young woman who supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, you were frustrated and outraged by the attacks of older feminists for your refusal to "vote according to your gender" in the primaries. You think that voting for a woman candidate because of her gender is sexist. Young women like you recognize that gender isn't what makes a person a feminist.
Your vote in the primaries was based on policy, not on getting the first woman into the White House. "You want somebody that values all of your principles and the morals that you stand for." 
You felt that Sanders gave a voice to young voters and their concerns. He advocated for things such as making tuition free at public colleges and universities.  Hillary just wasn't able to connect with you or your issues. Moreover, there was so much about her that you felt was questionable. She just didn't do it for you.
When Hillary became the nominee, you felt lost for a while. You had no idea who you might support in the election. Early on, Trump appeared to have made some interesting points. He even sounded like a Democrat at times. But then, he started going off the rails.  You considered sitting this one out altogether, but these past few months have made it clear that that is not an option either. 
Trump's has shown himself to be belligerent, boorish, racist, sexist and a whole bunch of other kinds of scary. He's crossed all lines. It's hard to believe that hasn't adjusted his approach or stance. You'd think he'd try to present himself differently, if only to appear presidential. You see him as a populist, a demagogue. (Merriam Webster defines a demagogue as someone who who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.)
You and your father have butted heads over Trump and Hillary in recent months.  He's trying to "educate" you about the "real" Hillary Clinton. He brings up Benghazi, the emails, and the private server, AGAIN. Initially you tried to shrug it off, but tensions have been rising when you're at home. He argues that she'll be soft on terror and wonders "if the country is really ready for a woman president." You're insulted.  And this, coming from your dad who's always told you to be all you can be and to fight for your rights. 
You assume your dad is backing Trump. Your dad is a good guy, but he's being played.  It's showing you, though, the importance of voting this election.  You actually think Hillary is strong, intelligent and is the kind of experienced politician who knows how to play the Washington game. Last year, this is exactly why you turned to Bernie, but now, with everything that has happened, you'll vote for her, come election day.
This profile is compiled from an article on millennial voters in the Guardian.


You're a 34-year-old female lawyer of African descent, practicing in a large city on the West Coast. 

Even though you're not particularly excited about Hillary, there's no doubt in your mind that that is who you'll vote for. You tell people: "I don't want the first woman president to be elected because the other person sucks, but that's where I think we are. People either say, ‘Donald Trump is not where it's at, so I'm going to vote for Hillary.' Or you have people say, ‘Donald Trump is not where it's at, so I'm not going to vote at all.' And that's not cool."

You've noticed that the Clinton campaign has struggled to connect with the millennials that were at the core of Obama's campaign in 2008 and 2012.  She's part of the political system that young people feel has failed them. And though voting rights were an important victory of the civil rights era, you don't feel you owe it to anyone to participate in the presidential election. 

You get that Black millennials are upset with Clinton for supporting her husband's 1994 crime bill and using the term "super predator" to describe young offenders. You feel she apologized, though, and that she deserves some credit for that.  She has since pledged to work towards criminal justice reform.  You feel that it's up to us as people, as voters, to put pressure on our political leaders to fight for our communities.  Sitting out is not the answer.    

You are taking it upon yourself to engage young voters in your neighborhood, asking them to think about what might happen if Republicans win the election.  What if they take the White House AND keep control of both houses of Congress? You encourage people to focus on state and local elections, because this is the level at which officials make decisions about policing and education, issues that directly affect all of our lives and issues -- and that you know are important to young Black voters in your community.

If you had your choice of who would become president, it would probably be Michelle Obama, but she's not running, Hillary Clinton is. You're pleased that the first lady and the president have become more vocal in their support for Clinton in recent months. They, along with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are able to connect with the young voters that Clinton been struggling to get through to.  

You tell your friends that they cannot afford not to vote, especially given that the next president will determine the nature of the Supreme Court. All of the things that we've worked so hard for, not only as African Americans, but as women, can be gone—tomorrow. We cannot allow someone who does not care about us to win. So if that means voting for Hillary Clinton, then so be it.

This file is compiled from a report in the Washington Post.