In July, we librarians and teachers are rarely thinking about school except in the manner that we always are: looking for interesting resources and thinking up new activities for the next school year. But this July brings us presidential conventions, and what happens there will impact us in schools into November and beyond. Teaching with and about the election process has always been a no-brainer; we hold debates and mock elections and tease out the issues while looking back in history to see how previous generations held their elections.
But this year seems different. A different tone, a different attitude, and a different trajectory toward that high office of President. Historically, discourse between candidates has not always been polite, but today we are currently seeing rhetoric that is also not always civil and feelings are running high all around.
I’ve heard many concerns about how to bring this election into the classroom and library with some teachers asking if they shouldn’t just underplay it and possibly not directly speak of it at all.
Advice from the Southern Poverty Law Center helps us to bring it back into perspective: “What’s at stake in the 2016 election is not simply who will be our 45th president or how the parties might realign, but how well we are preparing young people for their most important job: the job of being a citizen. If schools avoid the election – or fail to find ways to help students discuss it productively – it’s akin to taking civics out of the curriculum.”
So… what’s a school librarian to do?
One resource that is extremely helpful for helping us to discuss sensitive issues is Teaching Tolerance [tolerance.org]. Their many lessons encompass a wide variety of how to talk about race, bullying, diversity, and other important topics. Use some of these ideas for creating safe spaces in the library for these kinds of conversations.
Take a look at these resources and jump on in to a most exciting time in our history:
1. Check out this video that explains about a “Letters to the Next President” project. It’s a joint project between the National Writer’s Project and PBS station KQED. It’s a great way to help students focus in on what issues are important to them, based on their own experiences.
2. “Teach the Election” From the California History – Social Studies Project. This is a pay-for program that includes primary sources, connections with historical elections, and teaching suggestions.
3. Edutopia brings together many free resources from PBS, C-SPAN, Gilder Lehrman, and others to help teachers with interesting activities to bring the election to life.
4. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s survey “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools” brings many teacher – and student – concerns to light. There is no doubt that even as we look back at historical elections, the 2016 election is providing many challenges for teaching. This overview provides insights for discussions.
5. ICIVICS.org offers many election games and activities for all ages. The “Win the White House” game offers a fun online simulation for running your own election.
6. Political Cartoons. Using activities from the Library of Congress, teachers can guide students into political discussion by unpacking historical political cartoons. Check out these political cartoon activities:
a. Cartoon Analysis Guide [Library of Congress]
b. Political Cartoons and Public Debates [Library of Congress]
c. Interpreting Political Cartoons in the History Classroom [Teaching History]
After working with historical cartoons, use local or national newspapers to find recent cartoons to unpack, analyze, discuss, and research further.
7. Let students guide the discussion by asking their own questions. Using the Question Formulation Technique [http://www.rightquestion.org/], set students up for directed research into the the topics that truly interest them regarding the election. This might prove to be the most beneficial way to find out what students are thinking and are concerned about. If there are misconceptions, they can be addressed. Watching a video of a debate or speech, unpacking a political cartoon, or reading an editorial are all Focus Statements that can spark the questioning. Once students have questions in hand, share them with the class and sort them by possible group research topics, possible Socratic seminar discussion, or class audio or video projects. Using student-generated questions brings much more buy-in into this learning process because it centers on what they are wondering. Once they have a focus for locating answers, they are engaged learners who are willing to dig deep to find answers that have meaning for them.
We, as educators can help mitigate some of the unsavory aspects of electioneering by helping students understand that, with our efforts, the Constitution works, and each voter adds to the nation-wide conversation. Students want to know that their vote will count, that their opinions are important. We teachers want to share, that voting – and volunteering to support the candidate of their choice – is a privilege that is far too often denied to those in other countries.
9. Think Local. The election isn’t just about the President. Local elections, including local school boards, county supervisors, and town mayors are important for students to know about and engage with. These local issues definitely show that citizen input is important. Use these lesson ideas from the Close Up Foundation for some great library/classroom connections.
Reminding ourselves that the purpose of public education in the U.S. is to create students who are ready for college, career, and citizenship helps support our teaching the skills necessary for critically understanding the issues. All the national standards in all the content areas expect students to engage with topics by examining evidence, creating an argument, analyzing the issues, debating with others with different points of view, and working together to solve problems.
Using the resources and ideas above are jump-start links to get the whole conversation going.
Author: Connie Williams
NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!