NOVEMBER 05, 2018
Today’s political climate is tough for most people to navigate but it’s a landmine for Civics teachers. Somedays I come home from teaching at my middle school and my tongue is bleeding because I’m biting it so much during the school day. (Figuratively, of course!) So, teaching about the midterm elections must be done carefully and yet courageously. It’s never been more important to teach kids how to have civil discourse.
Open their minds a little bit…
The terms “Democrat” and “Republican” have become dirty words in a lot of communities these days, and many middle school students unquestioningly take on the political beliefs of their families. So it can be difficult to get students to have an open mind about the ideas each of the candidates is putting forward. I give my students a political beliefs survey in which I put forth the ideas of each candidate on an issue without revealing whose platform it comes from. Usually, the candidate’s websites are a great resource for finding their views on a variety of topics. Students then choose their stance on an issue, without knowing which candidate’s website the quote comes from. We tally up scores, and some of them are surprised to find that they have more in common with the candidate they thought they opposed. The iCivics website also offers great materials to do this, embedded in their Candidate Evaluation lesson.
Talk about ideas, not people
Middle school students are not comfortable in their own bodies, let alone comfortable with publicly disagreeing on political issues, some of which can be very personal. So, I do an assignment called “Ideal Candidate” in which students must create a drawing of the person who would be their perfect candidate for the midterm election. The candidate can be a person, fictional character, or an object, as long as they can justify their choice. I had a student create a chocolate chip cookie candidate one year because “they are sweet and make everyone feel better.” I love that aspect of the assignment because it unleashes their creativity. Then they must pick stances from the platforms of the people running for office that will become part of their Ideal Candidate’s platform. They include these items in their drawings. Near the candidates head they draw three things their ideal candidate would think about, near the heart, three things their candidate loves, near the hands: three things their candidate would work on, and under the candidate’s feet: something he or she would stomp out.
We use this candidate as a vehicle for a couple of pedagogical goals. We walk through the election process with our candidates having a class election. This teaches the students about the process of the midterm elections. It also gives the students a chance to discuss the ideas brought up by the candidates without focusing on the real-life candidates or the political parties they are affiliated with. The Mock Election Lesson on iCivics is a great resource to guide you through this process.
Seek a greater understanding, not a victory
In the last several years I have started to use more Socratic Seminar in my classes and less debating techniques. When the political leaders seem to be taking a “winning at all costs” stance on the national stage, it is important to model the significance of understanding a variety of perspectives. Creating a safe space to express their beliefs is particularly important in the hostile climate of the mid-term elections. With my middle school students, I have used “sentence starters” projected to the front of the classroom reminding us polite ways to disagree. The goal of the seminar, and of our political leaders, should be to discover what is best for the community, not simply to chalk up political victories.
Do the research, know the platforms
After all the other prep work is done, the students simply need to research the candidates. We have discussions about all the many inconsequential things that have too much influence on voters, such as fashion, political ads, celebrity endorsements, and propaganda. We talk about what information should be the most important in deciding who to vote for: the issues each candidate chooses to emphasize, and what they plan to do once they are in office. So, then the students research the candidates. I give them a graphic organizer to guide them and set them loose on the candidate’s websites. All of this culminates in a mock election at our school, which we do every single year near election day whether we are voting for president, Congresspeople, or our local school board.
So, go forth Civics teachers! We are needed now more than ever. The future generation of voters needs guidance and role models to help them express their beliefs in a dignified manner, to understand differing points of view, and to find solutions that benefit all members of our communities. The 2018 midterm elections seem very high-stakes. Though many of our students will not be able to participate directly today, our job is to inspire them to be thoughtful voices, voters, and leaders of tomorrow.
Meg Dombro is a civics teacher and curriculum developer in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. After spending eight years working in the entertainment industry, she became a teacher to pursue purpose and meaning for her life. She earned a masters degree in education from UCLA. Her education experiences including working in Title 1 schools, chairing departments, developing curriculum and training teachers.