Social Studies

Is the Election Still a Teachable Moment?

By Sarah Schwartz — October 02, 2020 9 min read
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Early this week, law and government teacher Daniel Bachman was preparing his class to watch the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Bachman gave his students at Massapequa High School in New York an assignment for the night: Outline the candidates’ positions on a policy issue, focusing on the substance of their arguments and the evidence they used for support.

But that night, as Trump continually interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace, pitching both candidates into a 90-minute shouting match, students started sending Bachman a stream of messages via the Remind app. They weren’t sure how to complete the homework. There wasn’t enough substance in the chaos unfolding on screen for them to write anything coherent.

“We wound up canceling the assignment,” Bachman said in an interview the next day. “We couldn’t do it.”

It’s not just the debates. Covering this norm-breaking election has introduced all sorts of new challenges for social studies and civics teachers, who are already trying to navigate a polarized political climate.

Trump has insisted that the election is “rigged” against him, making repeated, unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. He has also refused to commit to accepting the results if he loses.

See Also: Teachers React to the Debate: ‘If the President Was in My Class, He Would Not Pass’

Some teachers see this as a learning opportunity, an avenue for explaining what the U.S. Constitution says about election procedures and presidential succession. But they also worry that reassuring students about election security, and emphasizing the importance of a peaceful transition of power in a democracy, could be seen as partisan—especially in virtual classrooms, where teachers say it’s harder to engage kids and build relationships.

All the while, the country is still in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States, disproportionately affecting people of color. Uprisings have spread across states, as demonstrators protest police brutality against Black people.

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If America is experiencing a civic crisis, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

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The coronavirus has also directly affected the campaign: On Friday, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump announced that they had tested positive, throwing an already chaotic race into further uncertainty as questions swirled about the president’s health.

For students, it can feel like the nation is on the verge of a crisis. Isabel Morales, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that her class asked whether a second Civil War could happen if people were unhappy with the outcome of the election.

“It’s really hard to teach this at this moment. I tell them that I don’t want to lie to them. But I also don’t want to make them extremely scared and depressed,” Morales said.

Disengaging, experts agree, is not the answer. “The rancorous tone of discourse today, it seems scary to wade into. It can be easy to pull away,” said Nicole Mirra, an assistant professor of urban teacher education at Rutgers University, who studies youth civic engagement.

But teachers can’t afford to, she said. “This is a moment where our students are confused, or angry, or just curious.”

Answering ‘What Ifs’

Students ask a lot of hypothetical questions, said Allison Cohen, an AP government teacher at Langley High School in McLean, Va., and a member of the board of Street Law, a nonprofit that promotes law and civics education. “Sometimes it comes from a place of nervousness and concern, but sometimes it just comes from a place of, what is going on?”

So when Cohen awoke on Friday to the news that the president had tested positive for coronavirus, she started brushing up on her knowledge of the 25th Amendment, which outlines how to transfer power when the president is incapacitated, and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947.

“That’s the state of teaching government right now,” Cohen said. “You have a plan, and you wake up that morning prepared to have the plan fly out the window.”

This is far from the only hypothetical that Cohen has had to prepare to explain. It’s possible that the American public won’t know the outcome of the presidential contest the night of the election, experts say. In some states that have expanded their mail-in and absentee voting, ballots can’t be processed before Election Day, meaning that states may well be tallying votes long past the next morning.

If the race is close, one candidate might appear to have the lead that night, only to lose it once more mail-in votes are counted. Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that vote-by-mail is rife with fraud and that the election is rigged against him. (Studies have shown that there is not widespread voter fraud in the U.S.) Experts have advised the media not to call an early winner, in part to avoid fanning the flames of conspiracy theories that the election is being stolen if mail-in ballots determine the results.

The controversy and uncertainty leave students with a lot of “what ifs,” teachers say: Is it possible that we might not know the results for weeks, or months? What happens if both candidates declare themselves the winner? These aren’t the kinds of questions that teachers normally answer about the election process, but there are ways to address them.

First, it might be reassuring for students to know that there is some historical precedent for this situation, said Cathy Ruffing, the senior director of professional development programs and curriculum at Street Law. Teachers can talk about the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, she said, and explain why it went to a recount.

They could also point to some states, like California, that have long had large numbers of mail-in ballots and have historically taken longer to tally election results, said Darcy Richie, the senior director of program and impact at Generation Citizen, an action civics education organization. Students can see that the process still works in these states, she added.

“The observable perception is that mail-in ballots are new, or that it’s something that we’re trying this election,” said Richie. “Address that with a fact—mail-in ballots have existed as long as voting has existed.” Discussing why some are spreading misinformation about mail-in voting can open the door to conversations about voter suppression, Richie said.

“Many students are concerned about issues of equity in voting laws. The fact that a lot of these laws disproportionately affect communities of color is concerning to students,” said Cohen.

She has introduced her students to the “four pillars” of free and fair mail-in voting, a list of recommendations for states developed by Mark Elias, an expert in election law and the general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

Subject claims that the election is rigged to rigorous scrutiny, said Mirra: What sources are people on either side drawing on to make these arguments, how can we evaluate these sources, and then what do you think?

Before the election, teachers can also explain what each step of a transition of power looks like, as outlined in the Constitution, Richie said.

Cohen starts her class every year with a close study of the Constitution, but this fall, she’s emphasized some sections that she hasn’t in the past. She’s done a “deep dive” into the rules in the document about elections: which entities are responsible for running them, how the electoral college works, the timeline of when electors cast their ballots.

With younger students, teachers can talk about how the peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of a free democracy, said Mirra. “This is not a conversation about purely procedure, or esoteric rules. This is a conversation about values,” she said. “Why is this important for how we’ve chosen to build a system of government?”

Heightened Emotions

Even with a thorough understanding of election procedure, teachers still might find themselves facing unknowns in the weeks after Nov. 3. Trump has refused to say whether he will accept the results of the election.

“The social studies teacher in me wants to say, ‘We just have to trust the system. We have a Constitution, we have systems that ensure the peaceful transition of power,’” said Amanda E. Vickery, an assistant professor of social studies education and race in education at the University of North Texas.

“But at the same time, as a Black woman, as a scholar who studies race and systems of power, I know that the system doesn’t work for people who look like me. … You offer reassurances where [you] can, but you also have to be honest with students. We don’t know how this is going to work out.”

Yes, the outcome of the 2000 election wasn’t decided on that Tuesday night, either. But now, Vickery said, the United States is in a unique context: In the middle of a pandemic that has killed 200,000 people in this country, and amid ongoing marches and demonstrations protesting police brutality toward Black people.

Unorganized, armed militias, some with white supremacist ideologies, have been seen at many of these protests over the summer. In August, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old who showed up armed to the unrest in Kenosha, Wis., was charged with shooting three people, two of whom died. Still, in Tuesday’s debate, Trump refused to condemn white supremacist and militia groups. In fact, he went further and addressed the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, telling them to, “stand back and stand by.”

“[Students’] fears are rooted in substance, and what they’re actually seeing play out. They are seeing unrest,” said Morales, the Los Angeles teacher.

She tries to acknowledge her students’ anxiety and focus on what they can do—showing examples of how other young people, or undocumented people, have participated in democracy without being able to vote. She’s also thought about what the day after the election might look like in her class. Most of her 8th graders, who are all students of color, don’t want Trump to win, she said. If he does, “it’s going to be a very difficult day for my students.”

Fraught Conversations

Even if kids aren’t fearful about a particular outcome of the election, the current political climate has made talking about national politics fraught.

“Teaching the election in the past has always been a joyful thing. I always looked forward to it,” said Bachman, the New York teacher. “I just find in a more hyper-partisan world that now it’s become something where I’m more worried about hurt feelings, or somebody getting the wrong takeaway.” Students are more resistant to talking about hot-button issues, he said.

Bachman, who has some students in person and others on a simultaneous livestream, also worries about parents walking by their teenager’s Zoom screen and hearing a snippet of classroom discussion out of context. He never intends to impose his political beliefs on students, and he doesn’t want any family to get that impression. Bachman thinks his students, too, are likely being more careful.

“It’s not the same as … where we’re sitting in a classroom and every kid feels comfortable to say what they want to say,” Bachman said.

In such a contentious year, and with many students doing distance learning, teachers should always be doing emotional “temperature checks,” said Jen Wheeler, the director of teacher professional development programs and curricula at Street Law. Talk to students a few days ahead of time when planning for an activity that could bring up strong opinions or emotions. Ask: “What do you think we need to do in the next three days to make sure that we can have this conversation?”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2020 edition of Education Week as Is the Election Still a Teachable Moment?


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