Vote of Confidence: When It Comes to Teaching the 2020 Election, Educators Have a Plan

Pandemic and politically polarized nation be damned, educators adjust lessons to take on escalating rhetoric, mail-in ballots, accusations of voter fraud, and more. They remain fierce advocates for engaged citizenry and will demand civil discussion whether online or in-person.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

 

Teaching last spring was difficult. Schools closed with little to no warning and remote learning was adopted on the fly. It was chaotic, but it was supposed to be a short-term disruption. Instead, the pandemic rages on and educators and students continue to try to navigate the unknown. Plans to “return to normal” were undercut by alarming COVID-19 hotspots developing across the country in the early summer. Reopening schools became a political issue, joining masks and indoor dining as controversial topics where people take “sides” instead of relying on the advice of public health officials. There is a fear of illness and the anxiety of a national economic crisis. Yes, almost unimaginably, this new academic year brings even greater challenges than the last.

For educators who teach about elections, it is even more complicated—whether a school has in-person classes, is online only, or attempting a hybrid of both. It is a presidential election year. While many found 2016 daunting with its unprecedented rhetoric and a polarized nation, 2020 will be more difficult, educators say. And just as they were creating lesson plans to address the current political climate, as well as pandemic logistics, another obstacle emerged.

In his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore, President Donald Trump said, “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country.”

He went on to talk about the teaching of American history, but those who are passionate about educating the country’s young people about the Constitution, democracy, and elections were among the many to take offense.

“I am a public school librarian. I love helping my students become engaged citizens,” Amanda Smithfield, librarian at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School in Nashville, tweeted with a link to a Washington Post story about the comments. “I sponsor the high school Dems and Republicans. Our monthly discussions begin with a moment of gratitude for our Constitution. So, no, I don’t teach kids to hate the USA.”

The president’s accusation further complicates matters for teachers who may already have students and parents claiming schools push a political agenda. And even before that speech, educators were adjusting their typical curriculum to meet the specific needs of this election, which comes amid a continuing national health crisis and deep social unrest.

“Things certainly need to be reevaluated this year,” says Tom Bober, librarian at RM Captain Elementary School in St. Louis.

Bober has taught about elections, particularly presidential elections, for years, first as a classroom teacher, then since becoming librarian about a decade ago. He will build on what he did in 2016, he says. Across grade levels, topics that previously weren’t covered or not discussed in depth must be part of lesson plans for this election: mail-in ballots, accusations of voter fraud, the Electoral College vs. the popular vote, delays in results, and the impact of protests and influence of social media on the electorate. News literacy and the ability to have respectful and informed conversations are even more critical.

In 2016, the vitriolic politics surrounding the presidential campaign led some schools to end long-held events such as mock debates and elections. There were administrators who told teachers they couldn’t speak about the election or candidates; students were warned against it as well.

“The worst thing you can do is pretend an election is not going on,” says Smithfield. “How can you teach them how to engage?”

Smithfield fears the president’s July comments could scare even more teachers away from these conversations, which is detrimental to all. Students not only won’t hear different opinions, they won’t learn how to discuss issues.

“In our democracy, whether it’s voting or jury duty or even having civil conversations with those who have differences than you, that’s not something that is just knowledge, it’s also practicing those skills and dispositions,” says Mary Ellen Daneels, who is on leave from teaching social studies at West Chicago Community High School to run professional development for Illinois teachers as civics instructional specialist for the Robert R. McCormack Foundation.

In Illinois, the civics requirement says educators must teach current and controversial issues, according to Daneels. The standards also require that students take part in simulations of the democratic process. Whether any hands-on, in-person activities will happen remains unknown, but anyone teaching elections and leading these potentially heated conversations will need to lay the groundwork for discussion.

 

Ground rules

The first step is setting rules for the space, whether it’s in-person or virtual. Allow students to have a say in the rules and how to uphold them. Then practice. Working in a school in what she describes as a “very purple district,” Daneels says that once the rules are set, she does not start with hot-button, emotional issues.

“The first deliberation isn’t going to be ‘Who are you going to vote for?’ or gun control,” she says. Instead, she recommends opting for something fun such as ‘Do you put ketchup or mustard on hot dogs?’ to practice discussion with differing opinions.

Respect and a lack of judgment of peers are important, but accurate talking points are a must. Patricia Hunt won’t allow misinformation to be propagated in her class.

“I don’t want to make these false equivalences, ‘On one side they think this and on the other side, they think that,’ and give credence to a [false] story,’” says Hunt, 12th grade government teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA, and the News Literacy Project’s (NLP) Educator of the Year.

Hunt gives her students news articles to analyze, focusing on sources such as National Public Radio. She has facts at the ready for all topics. When a student declares something, she asks the source of the information—often adding that the student is not alone in their thinking, so the high schooler isn’t self-conscious or defensive. For example, she says, students can be easily convinced that voter fraud is a big problem in elections, but facts don’t back that up.

Smithfield, too, requires students—no matter their political allegiance—be prepared to back up their statements with reliable sources. Creating a space for respectful, fact-based political discussion and listening to those with opposing views is one of her focuses throughout the year. Daneels strives for a similarly accepting atmosphere.

“Sometimes you have to provide room for reasonable disagreement,” she says, adding that it’s important to articulate to students what it means to be open-minded. “Being open-minded doesn’t mean you’re empty-minded. We all come in with our implicit biases and lived experiences. But open-minded means ‘I’m open to listen, consider, understand the other viewpoint, and make an informed choice.’ If you change your mind, that’s a sign of growth not hypocrisy."

Patricia Hunt displays photos of her students when they register and cast their first ballot.

 

Beyond the ballot

Once the rules are established, there are plenty of topics and ways to teach them, especially this year. Most schools are familiar with running mock elections, but of course there’s more to it than just dropping a marked ballot in a box.

“Right now, I’m thinking about my elementary students understanding how people make a choice about who to vote for, what voting day looks like, and what they can expect to see with election results,” says Bober.

For older students, he knows the current issues will come into play.

“Black Lives Matter, health care, and others may be topics that students bring to the library,” he says, adding that he will look for child-friendly news sources to help explore those issues further.

He will also teach about the voting process.

“As [there are] shifts in how we vote, I want that to be understood as well,” he says. “That will look different for different ages, but many children go to the voting booth with a parent. I want them to understand that voting doesn’t look the same at every place. Limited polling locations, mail-in ballots, and voting during the time of COVID-19 are all elements of the voter experience I want to share with my students.”

The framework for his lessons includes helping students understand what they might see on television on election night, such as an election map, and he always likes to work in a little election history as well.

At the high school level, discussions dig deeper. In the spring, Smithfield and her students had a video call with the local elections committee.

“One of the questions we asked was, ‘What actually happens when you get the ballots?’ ” says Smithfield. “Questions like that, which may not be known to the general public, [are] key.”

The librarian emphasizes that it’s important to get high schoolers—who are old enough to vote or getting close—engaged, as younger Americans historically do not show up on election day as much as older generations.

Registering students to vote can be a highlight for teachers. Hunt keeps a board of photos of each student who registers and updates it when they vote. But even those still too young to cast a ballot can participate in the process. Many states hire anyone 16 and older as poll workers.

“It connects them to the process, so when they’re able to vote, it’s less scary, demystified, [and] they understand how it works,” says Daneels.

They also get paid, receive an excused absence from school, and can often troubleshoot a technical issue that older election workers cannot, she says. This year, it will be particularly important to get young people involved, as the older volunteers who normally staff the polls may be afraid to do so because of the coronavirus.

When eligible to vote, it’s vital that students have accurate information while heading into the polls for the first time, Smithfield says. If you can’t evaluate what you’re reading and seeing, she says, “you can’t participate in making our nation a more perfect union.”

“It’s hard, because there is a lot of disinformation out there, and I am hopeful that not just librarians, but other teachers are seeing that and [will be] more willing to collaborate on news literacy lessons with librarians,” says Smithfield. “I’m definitely planning on doing more news literacy. I can do independent lessons, but it’s best in correlation with an actual class and teachers who agree that this is important.”

Librarians should be ready, she adds, for whatever a teacher offers. She recommends creating a flexible lesson plan that adapts to the amount of time given, whether it’s one class period, a month, or anything in between. Beyond collaborating with fellow staff, she suggests librarians create their own programs to teach students directly this fall if possible. For the presidential primary, she had students research the candidates and do a mock debate during lunch, answering questions by referring to the material they learned about their candidate. They then ran an election, which required presenting ID.

In a typical year, Hunt’s students watch and analyze debates, study the Electoral College, swing states, and congressional races, and make predictions based on what they learn. She isn’t confident she can get through her typical presidential election curriculum if her classes are entirely online. But there is some “nifty” technology, she says, that might help in this unique time. Many companies continue to offer their resources and programs for free going into the fall, including NLP’s Checkology, which Hunt uses to help teach news literacy.

Hunt and Smithfield also hope students bring those lessons and the accurate information home, not only to share the facts about the process, but also to encourage parents and other adults to participate and vote.

“A lot of times, the kids I am trying to reach are the kids whose families don’t have a history of voting and may not be really comfortable with participating in the political process,” says Smithfield. “You’re educating the kid, but you’re hopeful they take that information home to their parents.”

 

Adjusting for COVID-19

As with every other subject, adapting to possible remote learning, for any length of time, will be difficult. Smithfield and Hunt, whose seniors didn’t have to attend classes after schools closed because they weren’t graded, worry about building enthusiasm through a screen, and creating excitement around registering to vote and becoming an engaged citizen.

The through line in all of Hunt’s government classes is the importance of being active and engaged citizens.

“It’s all about choosing to participate,” she says. “We spend the entire year talking about it.”

When in school, Smithfield calls the recently registered students to the library in May to make sure they have key information, such as the location of their polling place. That was a challenge while teaching virtually this spring. She reached out online, but it was not the same, she says.

Metro Nashville Public Schools announced in July that the year will begin online. The virtual environment can make it difficult to create the classroom or library structure that offers a “trusted space,” as Smithfield calls it. Students can feel emboldened to say things online that they wouldn’t in a classroom surrounded by their peers. But whether the year stays virtual or students show up in person, Smithfield plans to find a way to do everything she normally would—including holding a post-Election Day “celebration.”

No matter the result, Smithfield wants to bring her high schoolers together and mark the importance of citizens exercising their right to vote.

“It’s a celebration of the Constitution,” she says, “a celebration of the democratic process.”
 

 

 

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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