Teaching about Elections Without Losing Your Job

Spring 2020

By Andrea Zimmerman

Teaching about the upcoming presidential election is tricky. Given the incivility demonstrated by politicians these days, some of the traditional teaching techniques such as role-playing and debate could turn too volatile for a classroom like my eighth grade civics class. However, avoiding the topic of the upcoming election could send the message that we don’t value the process. In a survey of educators conducted by Teaching Tolerance in March 2016, almost half of the teachers said that they would not teach about the upcoming election because, as one respondent commented, “It is so inflammatory that no one wants to even discuss it."1 However, avoiding discussion of  elections altogether may be worse, as students who are exposed to the news at home could find educators less than honest if we didn’t trust them with complex issues. How can we address the “elephant in the room” without being stampeded?

Political parties can be studied from a balanced objective perspective. For example, when we use published party platforms as a basis for comparison, highlighting the candidates’ declared positions, students learn that politics is often not as partisan as it appears on the news. I recently attended a lecture at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke about how most cases that the Supreme Court hears do not end in a 5-4 split, as the headlines suggest. Students are often surprised that their preconceptions of party policy are not what they had assumed. Using a blind comparison of students’ opinions to party platforms on hot topics such as gun control or same-sex marriage helps students recognize that their own beliefs often cross party lines.

A teacher can address controversial issues in class, such as gerrymandering, voter ID requirements, and faulty polling, as long as the teacher is hyper-aware of the need to present a balanced approach. This requires extensive research and an open mind on the part of the teacher, who must not only present multiple perspectives but also deliver the information devoid of any condescension or condemnation. Websites like ProCon.org offer quick reference comparisons. The use of media sources like CNN, The New York Times, or Fox provides students with an opportunity to discover the political leanings of these sources by their choice of descriptive words. Is the conservative described as “traditional” or “old-fashioned,” for example? Students feel comfortable expressing their non-majority opinion if the teacher has exposed them to the vocabulary of their argument.

Actual current events should not be avoided in a civics classroom.  When a political position is offered or read about in a source, we are sure to discuss the alternative perspective, even if it is not covered in the piece. Students research and compare the campaign issues and voting records of each candidate without judgment. It is from this point that students can develop their own informed positions, sometimes consistent with their parents’ and sometimes resulting in lively discussions at home as they take in the daily news.

Informed debate is healthy, and our students thrive when they are aware of multiple perspectives while forming their own. After all, the ultimate goal of a good civics class is to develop a voter who not only has an informed opinion but can speak intelligently about it and knows how to acknowledge and adjust to new ideas.

Students love debates. However, during the last presidential election, our school decided that allowing students to do a mock debate between candidates Trump and Clinton could be disastrous. Instead, my class debated the Electoral College, which turned out to be relevant and more timely than we had anticipated. After a thorough study of the Electoral College, students realized that the Electoral College vote is a more nuanced issue than it first appeared. Those who concluded that the Electoral College must go were then hit with the reality that amending the Constitution is a daunting task only accomplished 27 times in over 200 years. Younger students can be presented with pro/con arguments, while older students can be expected to find their own debate points.

My civics class studies the election process not by role-playing actual politicians but rather by conducting a “Cookie Election.” I first heard this idea presented at a civics conference by a kindergarten teacher as a way to teach elections to 5-year-olds. As she described her itty-bitties campaigning for their favorite cookie, my mind raced with all the ways I could add realistic layers to this creative idea. The result was an eighth grade version that includes all the essential elements of an election: voter registration, voter ID cards, primaries, debates, campaigns, election protocol, party politics, and election day. However, instead of electing a person, we elect a cookie with the political parties represented by Nabisco and Keebler. Some students complained that they were restricted to such “ordinary” cookies, but that, too, is a political lesson, as we are often limited to choosing the least offensive, not the most desirable, candidate. It is surprising to see how “politics” can surface in such a seemingly benign version of an election, but it does. During the petition phase before the primaries, I heard a student negotiating with another saying, “Your cookie does not have enough signatures to make it to the primaries, but if you join our cookie, I promise to support your bid to be the debater.” The Cookie Election allows the students to experience and learn all the stages of the election process without the distraction of current political infighting.

The inevitable question is bound to surface at some point. “Ms. Zimmerman, who do you plan to vote for?” I’ve approached this question differently at two distinct points in my career. When I was teaching at a racially and politically homogeneous inner-city school, avoiding that question would have implied that I was in line with the political opposition, which would cause me to instantly lose credibility among my students. I was able to give them an honest answer that satisfied them.  At my current school, which includes more diverse political leanings, I have chosen to relish the fact that my students are not certain of my party affiliation. I see this as validation that I have been balanced in my teaching.

Endnotes

Andrea Zimmerman

Andrea Zimmerman (azimmerman@stmarysschool.org) taught high school for 18 years in the Memphis City Schools and is currently in her fourth year of teaching eighth grade Civics at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Tennessee.