Leaning In: Teaching Elections and Controversial Topics

October 21, 2020

iCivics and Vote by Design hosted a free conversation with 65+ educators to discuss teaching the 2020 election and controversial issues in a non-partisan way. The stressors of this moment in our nation's history underscore the importance and need for effective civic learning aimed at developing agency, resilience, and empathy in all of our nation's citizens, but especially our youngest ones. The conversation was moderated by iCivics’ Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships, Julie Silverbrook. Speakers included:
Kristin Cowles, Teacher, Laguna Beach Unified School District
Dr. Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at iCivics and Deputy Director of CivXNow
Amber Coleman Mortley, Director of Social Engagement, iCivics
Lisa Kay Solomon, Founder, Vote by Design and Designer in Residence at Stanford University’s Institute for Design 
Below is a summary of the main points presented by the speakers during the conversation, which has been edited and condensed. The entire conversation can be viewed here
Why is it important to teach about the election and controversial issues?
It is important because it matters. This election is remarkable, but it is one like many others. As students grow to become voting adults and participatory citizens, this is an opportunity to listen to different perspectives and points of view from people of diverse backgrounds.
Emma: Many teachers across the country are saying that they are being told not to teach the election or that they are sitting this one out. And that boggles the mind. It is in the classroom where students learn to be engaged as active citizens. If they do not have these opportunities to learn about and practice these skills or see these skills modeled for them in class, where are they going to learn them?
Lisa: You can help students become engaged and confident voters by providing the opportunity to practice having these conversations, practice deliberative thinking, and practice seeing themselves as active voters and engaged citizens. We must move beyond memorizing facts and embrace that this is a thinking process and a conversation. Classrooms and teachers provide a safe space for students to explore their values in the context of what matters and how they can be active participants in shaping the future that they want.
Amber: Civics is a problem-solving mechanism for our society, so we have built a set of rules of engagement between individuals to get the job done. Voting is one avenue in that problem-solving mechanism. Talking about controversial issues can show that civic engagement can help address these problems.
Especially this year, many students are struggling with a sense of powerlessness. Helping students find a place where their voices matter can make them realize that they can make an impact.  If they see something they do not like, this empowerment helps them understand how to fix it and make their voices heard.
How do we have these discussions effectively and inclusively?
By centering your students’ own experiences, you are allowing students to show up as their whole selves in the discussion. As adults, we can be put off by students' ideas or if their experiences are different from our own. We need to empower them to have their own opinions and look into why they have these opinions. 
Lisa: Consider your objectives and what you want your students to learn at the end of the unit. This can inform design choices to help them get there. When we engage students in these conversations, we are saying that we see them as capable of having these conversations. To be inclusive, we must think about the choices we are making to honor people’s ability to share their ideas safely. This is particularly challenging remotely, so we have to think even more carefully about the touchpoints along the way that allow people with different or less popular opinions to share their ideas. 
Kristin: Having agreed-upon ground rules or norms for your classroom discussion is also very important. By structuring the classroom and creating a safe space so that students feel comfortable contributing, that will carry into more controversial discussions. You can make sure to encourage students to participate and have other students respect their participation. To maintain the educational academic aspect of these conversations, you can also ask them to support their assertions. Understanding their reasoning allows other students to listen and learn how these perspectives are developed. 
Emma: The first thing I do is communicate with parents and administrators my objectives, motives, and what I am hoping to achieve to ensure there will not be any surprises. When they know your intentions, they are more likely to support it. The second thing is, don’t assume your students know a lot about the topic. To ensure everyone is on the same page, use a shared document, watch the same video, and read the same articles. Before students make a claim, set the expectation that they support it with evidence from that shared source. And to ensure students remain respectful, you can implement certain norms, such as, “In our class we say ;the Republican Party’ and ‘the Democratic Party’ instead of ‘the Republicans’ and ‘the Democrats’” or “ We refer to candidates by their formal titles.” As a classroom community, being consistent with little things like that can have a significant impact on the nature of the discourse.
Lisa: One thing I have learned is that if you are not able to articulate the ahead of time, people are going to make up the why. A lot of us are feeling on edge at this moment, so we will be in a fight or flight response when we are feeling triggered or threatened. So focusing on the purpose, centering learning, and amplifying other voices is critical. We can also model a posture of curiosity so that when you ask for evidence, it is not in an accusatory tone, but one of intellectual curiosity. 
How have these classroom conversations become more complicated in the face of increasing political polarization, especially in this unique moment of disrupted learning?
Our political climate makes us less inclined to want to step into this dangerous space, but it makes it all the more important that we do so. There are expectations that students should not be able to tell a teacher’s ideology from the way they teach. But to do that, you need to be 100% neutral in everything you do, and we are not capable of that. My recommendation is to communicate your values to parents and administrators. Make clear that your goal is not to change what students think about these issues, but to to develop how they think about them – to cultivate their ability to think critically about them. 
Kristin: It is not just ourselves and language that is biased. The choice of what to put in a textbook is in itself political and a reflection of bias. Teaching kids to hear our perspectives, but question it and evaluate whether or not that lines up with their values are part of that critical thinking that we want to be teaching them. Doing so will help them better understand where they stand. As citizens and human beings, they are going to get bombarded with many people’s opinions and they should not take it at face value. Being able to analyze sources and their reliability is a critical life skill.
Lisa: Teachers are learners too. How we taught civics and elections 4 years ago has changed. Allowing yourself to be seen as a student is a form of modeling. If you are feeling emotional about something, it means that you care. While there are emotions that cause us to shut down, there are also emotions that we can use to lean in and learn more. What does leadership look like in a moment of crisis? How do we know? Asking these open-ended questions allow students to find that, define that for themselves, and use it as more opportunities to have richer conversations and build.
To add a dimension to this conversation, when you bring news items from the New York Times or CNN, and your students question that as fake or inaccurate news. What are some strategies for how teachers can deal with that?
The media’s purpose is to provide entertainment and information. In going after the best possible story, the complete narrative is often missed. As an educator, you have to allow your students healthy skepticism. When analyzing the news, provide a variety of resources that are also discussing the topic to help them compare the language between channels. That allows them to get the complete picture and create their own opinion. Having candid conversations about the purpose of our media and allowing students to analyze whether it is a good source is also critical.
Teaching kids to read laterally across different sources like fact-checkers is also important. Resources like allsides.com can show the headlines from the left, right, and middle on the same topic. They also have a chart that shows where media outlets are on the ideological spectrum. But you can take some shelter in the material the school or school district provides in terms of subscriptions. Yes, there is a bias to it and you should help students to evaluate that, but that does not mean it’s not legitimate or that it’s not real news. 
Kristin: The Stanford History Education Group has great resources on teaching students to evaluate and corroborate sources. That’s an easy way to integrate those skills into lessons to lay out the groundwork for the controversial issues. And these resources can help us create lessons without starting from scratch, which can be difficult during this time.
Lisa: When students challenge articles as fake news, that’s an opportunity to ask them to tell you more about fake news and create a learning opportunity. That can be hard to do when you have a lesson plan and not prepared for that deviation. At that moment, you have to decide if it’s worth it to hold that space or if you should note it and move on. This requires recognizing the teachable moments along the way. 
Given the undemocratic nature of schools as an institution, what might young people be learning about governance? What lessons of democratic living are students learning from an inherently undemocratic learning environment? 
Emma: It's not enough to simply teach civics more – we also need to run schools and districts somewhat democratically, and allow for students to feel that their voices are heard. We should allow students to vote on more serious issues like school policies and disciplinary consequences. At the classroom level, teachers should also bring students into decision making, allowing them to choose topics and set norms. That doesn't mean students can choose anything they want. We can give them a menu of appropriate choices and let students decide from among them.
Lisa: Civics is interdisciplinary and requires integration with the principles of the school. These conversations also need to happen in history and other humanities courses. This is probably bigger than what you can do in the classroom. But this requires all hands on deck. And you can raise these questions with your colleagues, fellow teachers, or administrators to encourage this integration.
Kristin: By utilizing strategies like project-based learning, you can allow students to choose a real-life issue in their community, propose a potential solution, and learn about the way that their local government works. On a smaller scale, you can use concepts such as universal design for learning to offer students choices in how they acquire information, how they process information, how they demonstrate learning. Offering students choices, respect their values and preferences can help. While it’s not necessarily changing school structure, you are letting students know that you value their voice.
Amber: Adults need to be okay with not being in complete control of the outcome of learning. As adults, we have more evolution that needs to happen within our goals and expectations of what is possible at school and within the classroom. Students have great ideas. We should empower every student, not just high-performing students, to execute and implement those great ideas. How do we facilitate that space? How do we advocate to ensure that everyone, and not just high performing students, has these opportunities? These questions can help guide the creation of a positive learning environment.
As parents become a part of a student's learning environment because of virtual learning, there has been some pushback and questioning of why particular topics are being taught in the classroom. How can teachers deal with that and also leverage the situation to facilitate meaningful cross-generational conversations in the home?
Emma: At some point, you might have to decide to put these topics on hold if it puts your career and personal well-being at risk. But if you can proceed, one strategy to mitigate pushback is early communication. You can send home letters to parents ahead of time and appeal to them for that support by saying this is why teaching these topics and having these discussions is important. When you are accused or feel attacked, it is easy to want to respond in a legalistic mode and defend yourself. But it’s important to pause, listen to their concerns, and then have a conversation about your instructional choices. This can be tough to do with national rhetoric right now. So if you can’t do it, forgive yourself and move on. But if you think it can still be salvaged, try to have those conversations and bring in your administrators as well. 
Amber: What are the spaces where you can have group conversations with parents? For example, the PTA can serve as a space to allow parents to talk about the election and how they can have fruitful conversations at home. And when you're communicating about the election, you’re educating parents as well. Many have not been in a civics classroom in a while if ever. So this is also an opportunity to educate them and share resources that will allow co-learning together as a family. 
Do you have any activity suggestions that invite parents and their kids to engage in discussions around controversial issues? 
If your ballot came in the mail, looking at the ballot together can expose your kid to what a ballot looks like. During safer normal circumstances, families can go to the polls together. You can also encourage your students to do investigative work with their parents on the people running for local offices. While federal level offices are constantly on the news, we do not hear as much about local campaigns. Doing so is a great opportunity to get families engaged, involved, and informed about the people that represent them.
Lisa: In regards to the parent’s reaction, sometimes what shows up as anger is just confusion. We assume that people have been taught how to vote, but very few have been. We should support families to get closer through these kinds of conversations. Additionally, there are so many opportunities to support the activities around voting. On election day, there is likely going to be long lines. What can kids do to create entertainment and to provide support to create a better experience? Ultimately, this is all about confidence as well as agency in participating in these processes and helping these students feel like they can lean into these topics. 
Emma: When having conversations about controversial issues or elections, teachers tend to default to classroom debates. But the problem with the debates is that they are confrontational by their very nature. We are setting kids up to argue! So instead, we can strive for a greater understanding of the other side's position or in general. We can facilitate a structured academic controversy, a deliberation, or a Socratic seminar. There are many other ways to have these kinds of conversations and other ways to set them up. 
Lisa: When we debate, instead of asking why the other team is wrong, at the end, we can instead ask what they learned or what they didn't see because they were focused on a different frame. This can change their whole stance towards learning and reveal things that they might not have picked up on their own. The Better Arguments Project has great resources on how to look at arguments not as a win-lose but an opportunity to learn about ourselves, why we hold opinions so closely, and an opportunity to ask questions of others. We should also consider the conversations we will be having after this election, especially if outcomes may not be determined on the next day. We can think about how we feel the day after election day in 2016. That is data available to us right now to inform what we are going to do to support our students and their families.
What are some closing thoughts you can share with teachers?
Kristin: Teaching these issues is valuable, it's hard, but it's worth it. And there are resources to help. The Choices Program at Brown University has some great lessons teaching tolerance. Facing History is also a great resource. If you have access to Facebook, there are quite a few teacher groups on Facebook that are well moderated where people are providing each other with materials but also answering questions. You can also find a teacher buddy that you can bounce ideas off with to keep yourself defensible.
Amber: Be kind to yourself during this time. These are unprecedented and stressful times. Everyone is dealing with their own families and situations. Understand that democracy is an iterative process and that the election is not the end of this process. 
Lisa: We are taught to support a growth mindset. We have to do that for ourselves and our students as well. You can maybe even redefine success to better support your students. There are no metrics for this right now, so you have to be kind about how you measure this kind of dialogue and engagement. Just know that you are not alone.
Emma: If we are cultivating citizens, then our teachers are our water and our sunshine. For what it is worth, you have our full support in teaching controversy, teaching the elections, and bringing meaningful discussions into your classroom.

Explore a complete list of the teaching resources shared during the webinar.