DECEMBER 03, 2020
We spend a good amount of time preparing our students for major presidential elections; helping them understand how the election process works, why eligible voters should participate, and how historically, individuals have fought for their right to participate in this great civic experience.
But do we really spend enough time after the election focusing on what comes next or how we can continue to engage in our country’s political processes beyond the ballot box?
Teaching young people about political institutions — and their roles in them — is critical for repairing our country, and it shouldn’t be reserved for election season alone. Here are a few strategies that parents and educators can employ throughout the year to empower students to continue learning and engaging:
Distinguish the Levels and Layers of Government. Government and civic power operate through a variety of means. When we understand the role of political representation in our constitutional democracy, we have a clearer picture of what can be expected of them in office. For example, help students understand that the president, though an important part of our government, does not always have the final say. Introduce students to their legislators (state and federal!), their governors, and the courts. COVID-19 has shown many of us that understanding federalism and who’s in charge of what is really important. What is the relationship between all three branches of government and how does the relationship between the states and the federal level impact the individual? Our game Branches of Power is perfect for that.
Model and Practice Civil Discourse. Civil discourse is a challenging and necessary skill, but it is deeper than being able to stomach the ideas of someone in direct opposition to your ideals. Civil discourse is designed to help us understand each other better. Rather than a tool for debate, civil discourse should be a skill we develop to deepen understanding and improve social awareness. How do we honor our neighbors and even strangers in our community? How do we engage in challenging discussions with friends and family without damaging relationships? Moving forward, find opportunities to help students build trust in each other so that they feel safe enough to engage in civil discourse. Facing History and Ourselves offers a Fostering Civil Discourse Guide.
Explore the Role of the Media. The media play an important role in elections and help to shape how we might view a particular candidate or elected official. It’s not just about campaign ads; social media and online news sources provide civic actors with much of the information they use to form opinions and stances on candidates and ballot initiatives. Teach students to analyze what they hear on the news and scrutinize what they see online. Hold discussions about it as a class. How does one source portray the election results versus another? What does this mean for those of us consuming media and what is our responsibility in finding credible sources? Our game Newsfeed Defenders provides a good starting point.
Lean into Addressing Equity. It’s time to acknowledge that some students — specifically Black, Indigenous, non-black students of color, LGBTQIA students, and students whose immigration status is in-question, may not feel safe in your classroom or in their community. Many of the issues that impact these students are called “controversial” when for these students, they are issues of survival. Take time to honor that. Explore our free guides and videos for teaching controversial topics.
Look Beyond the Ballot Box. Remind your students that elections are not the only time or place that they can make their voices heard. Start with our Students Power Elections Guide that can be used independently by students. As one of our iCivics Educator Network teachers, Sharon Green noted, “Being a citizen in a democracy is about more than voting for president every four years.”
Written By Amber Coleman-Mortley
Amber Coleman-Mortley is the Director of Social Engagement at iCivics. She’s a former teacher and varsity coach and a parent blogger. She makes her own kombucha and makes her girls run a mile every morning. Follow her on Twitter at @momofallcapes.