How Will You Teach the Election?
How will you help students respect different viewpoints while covering the presidential election in your classroom?
By Carol Patton
Facts vs. Emotion
“I’m teaching students to focus on the reliability and credibility of multiple print and digital sources, as well as multiple perspectives,” says Mona Al-Hayani, a 9th- and 10th-grade social studies teacher at Toledo Early College High School in Ohio.
“They’re going to look at who’s funding the campaigns, the bias and tone of the campaigns. I’m also having them look at [candidate] speeches to pull out their views on K–12 education, immigration, or whatever issues are pertinent to students.
“Students will look at primary-source documents, secondary-source documents, and situations and historical events, and then compare multiple perspectives and pick out what’s reliable. They need to find statistics, cite the source, and formulate their opinion through factual, textual evidence. Then, we’re going to have a debate in the auditorium. There can’t be any emotion, only textual evidence.
“The volatile nature of this election has steered teachers away from teaching it in their classrooms for fear of criticism by their community. I take great efforts in making sure lessons are connected to standards. This is part of a larger lesson—that kids need textual evidence and have to back up their statements with facts. It’s a larger issue within social studies itself.”
“I will show them a conservative news source and a more liberal one and one that’s a little more moderate, all dealing with one of the candidate’s speeches or policies,” says Sari Beth Rosenberg, an 11th-grade social studies, U.S., and AP U.S. history teacher at High School for Environmental Studies in New York City. “Then, I have the kids figure out why those particular perspectives [are what they are] and ultimately have them formulate their own opinions. I want them to understand that you need to look at multiple perspectives to have a good sense of what’s going on and to form an educated opinion.
“When they watch the debates [at home], I use that as a way to look first at best practices and then at ways that candidates could have improved their arguments. We have our debates a couple of days later, take the source of the best practice of the debate—whether it was a Republican or Democrat—and use those same best practices in the debate that they engage in.
“I also use the election to teach contextualization. When kids want to debate the issues, they realize the importance of contextualizing to understand why candidates appeal to certain people.”
Past and Present Alike
“While this election does seem a little bit nasty, it’s also very instructive,” says Kieley Jackson, secondary history and social science coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “It’s always helpful to make sense of the present by looking at the past.
“We’ve had some interesting and controversial and somewhat nasty presidential elections in the past, so we’ve always encouraged teachers to structure lessons around that. It’s a way to also understand and appreciate that what appears to be so very different and unusual, that when put in a historical context, is perhaps not so [different].
“We always push that the classroom is not a bully pulpit. Instead it’s an opportunity to foster critical thinking, and we would prefer students to ask questions and learn in that fashion rather than by being told what to think.
“Sometimes, we provide structure for debates, where we give students a sentence starter that says, ‘I respect your opinion, however…’ so they immediately don’t come off as hostile. It’s a challenge, of course, but it’s important that students be allowed to express their political points of view.
“The line I always use with teachers is that we need to set a better example for our students than our politicians do. We don’t attack people. We have structured arguments about a difference of opinion that’s based on evidence. Our tagline is that we want to create effective consumers and producers of information.”
Learn and Vote
“Some of our government teachers do exercises that identify whether students are more liberal or conservative, and then give examples as to how one particular philosophy or ideology might lend itself to one party or another,” says Cheryl Jannuzzi, social studies teacher and department chair at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona.
“I always tell my kids, ‘I don’t want to make you think or believe anything, but I want to help you defend what you think or believe.’ We give them the tools to determine bias in the media when it comes to campaigns, to look at the actual root of issues, and to know where to go to find factual information.
“We allow time for each class to deal with the events of that day. We try to track current events—what’s happened the night before, or that day, and have kids deal with that information because it’s fresh. We look at what candidates are saying, what they’re proposing or not proposing, as it happens.
“We also have our students run through the process of voting. Our student council runs it. Voting is optional. Results are divided by grade level so we can see what the trends are. Then we talk about the results, how they may mimic the general election.
“In the last two elections, students voted for President Obama. We’ll see how it turns out this year.”