We are two weeks away from the Presidential election. Social studies teachers usually respond with a short unit on the subject looking at past history and the process itself. Normally, emotions and opinions run high as the election approaches particularly among older students, some of whom might be eligible to vote for the first time. However, this campaign has been far from normal. The level of acrimony coming from supporters on each side is creating stress and arguments within families and among friends. It’s tempting to step aside and not deal with it.
Yet we have an obligation to tackle it.
We need to find a path that allows our students to learn from what is happening, develop a deeper understanding of this election in context of what has gone before, and discuss it without hostility. A tall order when our own feelings are also heavily engaged. To do so, it’s necessary to focus on what you want to achieve with the unit and set ground rules from the beginning.
For all grade levels, formulate the Essential Questions you want students to explore. Possible ones are: Why do we have elections? Should we continue to have an Electoral College? What causes political parties to change their views over time? Why has this election campaign been so different from previous ones? The first would work well at the elementary level and will have a deeper analysis with high school students.
Once you know the direction you are taking, set up ground rules to ensure the exploration and discussions don’t descend into the rancor that has typified this campaign. A number of indicators in the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner refer to being able to do such things as “Maintain a critical stance by questioning the validity and accuracy of all information” (1.2.4), “Consider diverse and global perspectives in drawing conclusions” (2.3.2), and “Use knowledge and information skills and dispositions to engage in public conversation and debate around issues of common concern.” (3.3.3).
In your first meeting with students have a brief discussion as to why ground rules are necessary. Acknowledge the emotions common this year about the election and the candidates. Ask students to raise their hand without any comment if they feel strongly in favor of one of the two major candidates. Then let them know there will be no attempts to change anyone’s preference and there will be no criticism of the candidates. Unlike what is happening on television, social media, and news outlets, the discussions will stay on target. There is to be no name-calling, shouting over each other, or accusations about the other candidate. Be open to having students add any ground rules.
If students are exploring the candidates in this election, have them work in pairs to research the candidate they prefer. Using a lesson plan that ties into your Essential Question(s) direct students to get started. One resource to use is Scholastic’s website or check out Edutopia’s Election 2016: Lesson Plans and Digital Resources for Educators.
Although at a far higher level than usual, candidates and their supporters regularly accuse the other side of lying. News media do fact checking, but students should learn how to so on their own. Get Your Facts Right – 6 Fact Checking Websites That Help You Know the Truth has three to verify political statements plus other for email scams and hoaxes.
When your project is complete and students come together for a final discussion and sharing, review the ground rules which should be posted. For those old enough to use the political fact checkers, have them discuss what they learned from it. As much as possible, ask if they have verified a statement. Wrap it up with their responses to the Essential Question(s).
How are you handling this election? What are you teaching your students?