A new word has crept into common use in government and social studies’ teachers’ lexicons over the past few years: “unprecedented.”
It’s how educators have had to describe the events of the last few tumultuous years in politics, answering students’ questions about the January 6th insurrection, former President Donald Trump’s two impeachments, or his threats that he wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transition of power after the 2020 election.
Now, teachers and students are witnessing another once-in-a-generation event, as the U.S. House of Representatives struggles to elect a Speaker.
A group of right-wing Republicans continues to block their party’s nominee, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who has failed to win enough support to be elected to the post in what is now the third day of voting. The standstill prevents Congress from functioning in the meantime.
Social studies teachers, who spend much of their time demonstrating to students how the government should work, don’t always have a roadmap for explaining what’s happening when it ceases to function. And it’s not yet clear what the legacy of the past few years of American political history will be—historians will likely argue about that for decades—an added hurdle for educators who are trying to explain these years’ significance in real time.
All of this is unfolding as social studies teachers are under intense scrutiny. State laws restricting classroom discussion of current events or “controversial” issues have created a climate where teachers can feel hesitant to bring up anything that may be seen as partisan.
But even among all these challenges, discussing the Speaker vote—and other unfolding political storms—poses an important opportunity to reinforce social studies skills, said Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center.
“If we are teaching our kids to be inquisitive, think through the questions they want to understand, and then systematically look for sources that are strong … students can build understanding alongside each other,” she said.
Education Week spoke with Sautner, and collected some tips from our past stories about teaching unfolding political events to put together this guide.
It’s OK to learn with students
How long can Congress keep voting on the Speaker of the House? Has this ever happened before? Why is it happening now?
Teachers may not have the answers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a discussion with students, Sautner said: “When we expect ourselves to be the experts in the room and be the doler of information for our kids, you stop teaching kids that we’re all perpetual learners.”
Teachers can start with an “audit” of what kids have already heard, Sautner said. What do they already know, and where are they getting their information?
If students aren’t already familiar with the Speaker role, this can be a good time to talk about the basics, using the Constitution as a primary source, Sautner said: “What is the job of this person that we’re talking about? What do they do?”
Then, teachers and students can identify what questions they still have together. There might not be clear answers—and that’s OK.
As one teacher said after the January 6th insurrection, “Our responsibility is both to inform but also to admit when we don’t have the answer. I need to process this as a teacher, as an American, as a citizen, as a voter, in the same way a student would.”
Use media coverage as a jumping off point to talk about news literacy
“It’s a great opportunity for kids to understand sources and bias in the media,” Sautner said. Teachers can ask: Where are you getting your news from? What’s the source’s perspective?
Getting the facts of a situation requires more than just consulting opposing viewpoints, media literacy experts told Education Week in 2020. Students also need to learn how to evaluate the news source itself: Is it a nonpartisan, fact-based news site that adheres to shared journalistic standards, or is it openly partisan?
One way to do this is by using a technique called “lateral reading,” taught in the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum from the Stanford History Education Group. To figure out a new site’s perspective and agenda, students can look to see what other sources say about that news site. It’s a technique that professional fact-checkers use.
Just because a news source has a bias, though, doesn’t mean it can’t provide useful information, Sautner said. In some cases, the perspective is the information itself—it can be instructive for students to compare how left-leaning and right-leaning outlets present the same events, she said.
Find your lens
There are lots of connections that teachers can draw to current events, whether in a history, government, or civics class.
Teachers can use the Constitution to trace the role of the Speaker in different situations—like impeachment, or presidential succession, Sautner said. It’s one way to show how the document’s many pieces work together, she added.
It’s also a civics lesson. “So often, we teach our kids about civil dialogue, but a big part of that is compromise,” Sautner said. “How do you persuade, and what are the agreements you’re going to make? And then what’s compromise, and what are you not going to compromise on?”
There’s a history angle, too. The last time the House battled to this extent over a Speaker vote was 100 years ago, with some resonant similarities—the Republican party’s nominee was at odds with a faction of his colleagues in both instances.
Over the past few years, social studies teachers and experts have suggested how to approach other events from these multiple entry points, too, from the 2020 election to Trump’s second impeachment. Educators have shared how they’ve gotten creative about investigating obscure questions or making connections to periods of history that they might not have otherwise discussed in class.
“That’s the state of teaching government right now,” one teacher said, in October of 2020. “You have a plan, and you wake up that morning prepared to have the plan fly out the window.”