Even with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of remote and blended learning, one issue is top of mind for teachers, both as educators and as Americans: the 2020 presidential election. In September, we held a webinar with iCivics to explore how district curriculum and instruction leaders can help teachers educate students about the election despite the incendiary political climate. Read on for a summary of the discussion, including steps that district leaders can take now to set educators up for success.
Dan Cogan-Drew, Chief Academic Officer and Co-Founder, Newsela
Dr. Emma Humprhies, Chief Education Officer, iCivics
Jane Purcell, Social Studies and Business Education Coordinator, Norman Public Schools, Oklahoma
Why are educators obliged to discuss the election?
Elections have always been contentious — but in the current toxic political culture, they are on par with teaching the hottest-button political issues, such as the Second Amendment or abortion. It’s understandable that teachers may fear tackling the topic in classroom discussions, but Dr. Humphries explained that succumbing to these worries inflicts real harm on our democracy. She shared research showing that students are 40% more likely to vote when they turn 18 when they are taught about elections and voting. On the other hand, students who are not taught about these things are twice as likely to say that voting is a waste of time. Dr. Humphries noted that since social studies prepares students for their postsecondary futures, including college, careers, and civic life, they need opportunities to learn how to make sense of a presidential election — and failing to meet this need is educational malpractice.
How can district leaders support teachers?
Purcell discussed how administrators can play an important role in helping teachers meet this need. The first step, she said, is to hold district-level conversations about why it’s important to teach about voting, elections, and controversial issues. These can guarantee a higher-quality experience for students and take some of the burden off of teachers by setting expectations that the election will be taught, ensuring alignment to state and national standards, and developing a process to evaluate instructional resources and curricula that are not based on textbooks.
So too should these conversations happen with teachers, Purcell added. Administrators can help teachers plan and prepare their teaching, asking questions about how they plan to introduce and build on election content. Other forms of support include assisting educators in establishing ground rules for classroom discourse, especially in remote settings, and ensuring educators have open lines of communication with school site administrators if problems arise.
To do all this successfully, district leaders need to be proactive about involving caretakers in election instruction. Purcell recommended helping teachers draft letters to caretakers, with a focus on answering “5W” questions — such as, “What resources will be used? Why has the teacher chosen these resources? How can caretakers continue these conversations at home?” By proactively setting up caretakers to be partners in educating learners about the election, she said, schools can build trust and set a tone of respect and inclusivity.
How can the right instructional content help?
The panelists agreed that effective instructional content is another ingredient in successful education about the 2020 election. As with any instructional design, educators should have access to relevant content that is representative of students’ lived experiences. Cogan-Drew explained that this includes involving students in driving the dialogue about issues that are most important to them. He shared a Newsela survey of students that found they were most interested in the issues of racial justice, climate change, and COVID-19. However, like any curriculum, election instruction should be responsive and customized to challenges students face in their own lives.
At its best, the right election content can support pedagogies like the inquiry-based model and project-based learning. Purcell recommended educators look to organizations like C3 Teachers and Teaching Tolerance, which have released resources for teaching the election within these frameworks. The teacher’s responsibility, Cogan-Drew added, is to curate these and other materials to give students access to choices and content that support instructional objectives.
Teaching about the election can be difficult and even scary for educators, but that makes it even more important. Ultimately, the panel concluded, we have an obligation to set an example for students so we can equip them to engage with equally challenging topics out in the broader world.
Watch the full session.