As students around the U.S. go back to school (some now a month ago, some just this week), one of the questions facing teachers, schools, and districts will be how to teach and talk about the 2016 presidential election. As a civics buff and champion for student voice and First Amendment rights in schools, I would love to be back in the classroom these next few months, but teaching about the campaign process and the reality of how it plays out across our televisions, radios, and newspapers can feel daunting to many. The particular tone of this election season and the lack of civility this year can make it even more challenging.
Sometimes it is anxiety about getting into partisan politics, sometimes it is reluctance to talk about challenging social, economic, or global issues, and sometimes it is just wondering where to fit it in to the curriculum, but whatever the reason, schools may be tempted to ignore elections, both national and local, despite their obvious impact on students.
We hope you don’t. We hope you take the opportunity of this election season to engage young people in meaningful conversations and to deepen their understanding of the American electoral process. Edutopia put together a great list of lesson plans and digital resources to help and we have seen other good materials on ShareMyLesson (by AFT), Scholastic, and from our friends at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.
Civility Because the Children are Listening
Of course, it matters deeply not only what is taught, but how it is taught. This isn’t a matter of policy positions or bias, but a matter of modeling for children the civic and civil competence that is at the heart of the famous Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” It is the understanding that, with our rights, come certain responsibilities.
That’s why I really love the Speak Up For Civility: An Election 2016 Contract released this week by our colleagues at Teaching Tolerance. The contract is for the adults of the school community – staff, families, volunteers, etc. – and asks them to promise both to involve kids in conversations and activities about the election and to commit to civil, respectful language about the candidates and their positions. I find it quite powerful and think it could be a powerful inclusion in Back to School night and PTA activities as well as staff meetings and professional development. Of course, it would take minimal adaptation to work as a guide for classroom discussions as well. (Our lesson on writing a constitution of caring in the classroom can help as well.)
Of course, I’m an educator, so I look for lessons and resources to help me teach and engage with students. Luckily for Operation Respect, our founder is an iconic folk singer, so he writes a song. I urge you to listen to “The Children are Listening” and to share it with your friends and family. It’s powerful and can spur important conversations this election season.