No one can ignore this year’s election. From the attack ads on TV, to minute-by-minute trending stories on social media, to campaign signs in your hometown, political talk is literally everywhere you look. And while you thought Choices might be a safe oasis, we couldn’t shy away from this crucial opportunity to help your students understand voting as an essential form of advocacy, and to help them see that civic engagement is a fundamental life skill. In a special 4-page election edition of our Changemaker series in the November/December issue, your students will:
- Meet two teens working on opposing presidential campaigns
- Be introduced to the key issues that have the power to shape their futures
- Learn the impact they can have, whether or not they're old enough to go to the polls
The story itself has spectacular questions and activities (check out the Teacher’s Guide!), but we also felt it was our duty to provide you with some additional guidance. We know that bringing up the election in the classroom feels intimidating and tricky—especially in a political season where much of the discussion is trending toward divisiveness—but it’s extremely important. We spoke to Paula McAvoy and Dianna Hess, co-authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, to get a list of simple Dos & Don’ts to help keep the focus on the critical learning piece here: the importance of civic engagement, and how to help your teens understand why this election matters for their future.
- Encourage critical thinking. When you bring up the presidential election, even in the most non-partisan context, you can not be completely sure where the conversation will go. But you can be armed with questions to inform and frame discussions, so students can learn to think more critically about the candidates' platforms and the media coverage surrounding them. (One great question to keep in your back pocket: Imagine someone who disagrees with you. What is the best argument they could make?)
- Teach students the difference between "campaign talk" and "classroom talk." Campaign talk often simplifies issues and removes nuance to rally people behind a candidate. In the classroom, discussion of politics needs to be academic, informed, and respectful. It needs to consider all context and points of view. Reinforce the norms of “classroom talk” by stopping students from making flippant comments, like calling an idea "stupid" or referring a candidate as an "idiot." (And make sure you don’t do this , either!)
- Structure your discussion. You will probably find that your students love to talk about voting and the issues that matter to them, but for some, a classroom-wide conversation can feel intimidating. Consider pairing students up so that they can dicuss their own beliefs and teach each other about their opinions before moving on to a larger group discussion. Emphasize that it is OK to respectfully disagree with someone! This is how we learn.
- Ask, "What do you think?" . . . Without some advance prep, that is. Teachers should not, for example, say to a classroom of students: Yesterday, X candidate said Y thing about Z issue. What do you think? This invites students to toss out any idea they've heard about a topic—informed or uninformed. This will likely take the discussion somewhere you never intended. Only ask if you've given them all of the information needed to form an informed opinion.
- Ignore other offices! There are senatorial and house elections in every single state, plus important state and local races too. The Presidential race is surely inciting the most interest, but it is your job to use this interest to encourage students to think about the other leadership positions that may have an impact on their lives.
- Preach your views. This one should be obvious, but it's worth repeating. Your aim should be to have students discussing as much as possible, and the more you talk, the less they do. That said, Hess's and McAvoy's research has found that high school students are quite open to teachers who carefully and occassionally share a view. Don't be afraid to mention that a particular issue matters to you. It's possible to show your own engagement without communicating that you have all of the right answers.
SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
- ProCon.org Election 2016 - As your students take a deeper dive into what matters to them, ProCon.org's election site may prove extremely helpful. It offers reliable, sourced information on where the candidates stand on key issues.