On Teaching: 2020 Elections and Voting

So you know what makes an upcoming Election really exciting?  Going back to school in a hybrid model the same week.  I mean challenge IS my middle name.  Wait, no it’s not.  It’s Tommeseau. 

Depending on who you talk to, this Tuesday, November 3rd is either the end of our democracy, the second coming, or Kendall Jenner’s birthday. No matter which way they lean politically, this is the time for teachers to engage.  I get the reluctance to touch this election in the classroom with even a ten foot pole.  I was seriously tempted to duck and dodge the whole shebang.  I did a large project in the spring with my former 6th graders around the primaries, but I was feeling overwhelmed this fall and secretly hoped someone else would do it.  Then I was invited back to The Kojo Nnamdi Show to talk about elections and civic education, and as with all reflective experiences, I was reminded of my duty as an educator to serve my students first, even when it is uncomfortable or hard.  

In the past, to prepare students for elections, we probably assigned the debates as homework or made electoral maps to keep track of results as they rolled in on election night. We wrote pro-con papers about the issues and compared candidate positions.  There was something authentic about modeling civil discourse and polite ways to disagree with people.  

This year feels different. Our country has returned to a time of deep divide. The debates were disturbing. Headlines about potential vote suppression are disturbing. Everything needs to be fact checked because people are lying, and that is disturbing. We pray there is still time to right this ship and hope our relationships and Thanksgiving dinners will survive the outcome, but even the grownups aren’t really sure this is going to end well.

Meanwhile, our kids need to be engaged and inspired to have civil conversations, develop critical thinking skills, and formulate knowledgeable opinions.  What to do?

Here is where I think we teachers can be really helpful: 

Demystifying political processes

With so many mail in ballots and lawsuits on the line, this election is unlikely to be called on election night.  Process is going to be so important, and ours is confusing in a normal year.  I love the free lessons, infographics, and games from iCivics, which was founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. There is a great selection on everything from deciding Supreme Court cases to running for President to passing a bill through Congress. This site syncs with Google Classroom and they’ve curated a selection especially for this election

Last spring I assigned these games for homework, and then students brought their experiences to fuel discussions about how these processes work and fit into ideas about democracy. They were also useful for illustrating how exactly critical bills like the Voting Rights Act or Americans With Disabilities Act were fought for and passed.  This year, iCivics has teamed up with Peardeck to offer several ready to teach slide shows.

Ensuring students are digitally and media literate 

Media literacy is a topic close to my heart, since I majored in media studies during undergrad and worked in advertising.  I have been fortunate to partner with talented librarians and educational technology teachers over the years who shared a wide range of tools and strategies.  ISTE is a great organization that has years of research and standards for digital literacy and citizenship that schools can reference.  

We used to use fun examples like the website about the tree octopus to talk about credible sources and doing real research. I think the 2016 election made it clear that misinformation and disinformation are global industries, and that not being able to differentiate real information from false information has serious consequences for our democracy.  It’s not just a nice to have skill – it is an essential literacy. Media literacy education now has to keep up the creators of this content who are using technology in incredibly complex ways.  It’s gotten so much harder to tell whether an article or video is based on fact or has been created to deceive us. Give this game from factitious a try and see where your skills land.

It feels really important to include emotional intelligence and self-regulation in critical thinking skills. ISTE suggests that when there are no obvious clues that something might be misleading, we can use active listening and reading skills to check in with ourselves.   Refining our gut reactions can help us feel less overwhelmed and inundated. Questions I want students to ask about information they encounter include: 

  • How did I receive this information?
  • Who is delivering this message?
  • Who is creating this message?
  • What words are they using?
  • What is their purpose or intent?
  • What is their tone and what does their tone indicate in terms of perspective or bias?
  • What effect is this message having on me?
  • If I am feeling a strong emotion, where is that strong emotion coming from?
  • What about this message confirms, challenges, or changes what I know and believe? 
  • What am I going to do with this information? 

While the Newseum is closed now, it was such a wonderful resource and I am glad they are continuing their educational programming that supports learning about first amendment rights and media literacy. This lesson from NewseumEd is a terrific tool for putting political ads into context and giving an open framework for analyzing ads running now. 

The New York Times has put together an open ended Bingo game/scavenger hunt format to help students scan the news that comes to them on any platform. A class can use the game prompts to spark discussion or additional research. 

I also think it is important to talk about journalism as a career, with particular attention to the code of ethics professional journalists agree to follow.  If a writer, blogger, or show host isn’t following these rules, then their work might not be news, and that’s an important distinction.  

Emphasizing voter empowerment

The numbers in this election will be epic and getting out the vote is one positive message that seems to be louder than ever.  It is wonderful to see lines forming and a steady flow of cars leaving the parking lots of schools and community centers around the country.  The Choices Program from Brown University has a great lesson on voting, values, and policy during a Pandemic.  

Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project have so many interactive resources (many repackaged for virtual teaching) on the history of voting rights in the United States. The role plays are especially recommended because they feature so many students, a narrative that is really inspiring to young people. I used this lesson from Teaching Tolerance to launch a study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that connected to the spring primaries. All students should have an accurate understanding of the ways women and BIPOC fought (and continue to fight) for their suffrage. 1919 was NOT the year all women received the right to vote. These facts are really appropriate to bring up in a major national election year, but also during smaller local or state ones as well.

I really enjoyed this Throughline/Up First podcast about Frederick Douglass. Voting was very important to his concept of freedom. Lucretia Mott was a really interesting suffragist and abolitionist, and the National Women’s History Museum has a set of four lessons on her, other suffragists, and the Seneca Convention. I’ve written before about Fannie Lou Hamer; her speech is a riveting primary source on the lengths white supremacists went to prevent Black people from voting. These three individuals had very different journeys gaining access to the polls. Examining them together weaves a powerful narrative about obtaining and protecting a truly inclusive right to vote.

This slideshow was created to lead a virtual activity on voting for my son’s kindergarten playgroup.  They really enjoyed learning about our local leaders, doing the scavenger hunt for issue related items, and hearing the read aloud from Sankofa Books. 

My colleague, Krystle Merchant, Director of Community Engagement at Maret School, designed this awesomely engaging and comprehensive Peardeck for our middle school students.

However you choose to do it, however hard next week might be, we need to lean into opportunities to talk about the election with our kids, EVEN if our schools request that we not make it too “political”, whatever that might be code for.  Our students are tomorrow’s voters, and what we do now sows the seeds for future generations of engaged citizenship in our democracy. 

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