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Thursday / December 1

How to Handle Election Conversations in the Classroom

The midterm election cycle is drawing near and if you have been paying attention to the news, you’ve likely noticed that election races are continuing to be divisive and contentious. This divisiveness has led to concerns from educators around the country about how to talk about the elections in our classrooms. In some instances, they’ve made the decision not to teach the election at all. If students aren’t going to learn about elections in our classrooms, do we trust they will effectively learn about civic life on their own? As co-authors of the book Civil Discourse: Classroom Conversations for Stronger Communities, we strongly believe that if our democratic republic is going to thrive, then this is not something that can be left to chance.

We suggest using the C.U.B.E.D. approach to talk about the election and other political topics this fall. C.U.B.E.D. stands for:

  • Courage
  • Understanding
  • Belonging
  • Empathy
  • Discourse

We developed the C.U.B.E.D. approach for a wide range of potentially contentious topics, including political conversations. What does C.U.B.E.D. look like when applied to lessons about the election cycle?

Courage: The two most common approaches to talking politics in American culture today are avoidance and arguing. Because of the potential for fighting, it takes courage to not avoid these conversations but rather tackle them head on. If your curriculum includes politics and elections, then you must have the courage to facilitate student conversations on these subjects.

Understanding: Successful conversations are rooted in a shared understanding of the topic at hand. If teaching about the election is a part of your curriculum, then lessons should include the background knowledge necessary so that students have that shared baseline. Think about what information students would need to know about elections: how they work, campaigning, voting rules, etc. Well ahead of Election Day, work to ensure baseline student understanding before having conversations that might lead to heated engagement or questions from parents and the community.

It is also worth noting: This is a good time for a temperature check on your topic. If your curriculum does not provide the necessary background to engage in conversations about elections past and present,  .

Belonging: When talking about politics and elections, it is important that students feel a sense of belonging in your classroom, regardless of their political leanings and beliefs. Educators need to start developing a strong classroom community on day one of the school year and continue to strengthen their classroom community throughout the year. We frequently talk about investing the time in building relationships based on classroom agreements well before we start deliberating politically-charged topics. Have your students engage in the work of developing classroom agreements and find ways to remind students of these agreements. Check in frequently to see if updates are needed. Work with students to plan around what could go wrong, think about how to avoid these missteps, and develop ways to heal and grow when issues do arise.

Empathy: Students need to know that disagreements are natural and part of what make us human. Disagreeing is okay and helps us learn from the different perspectives of others. The classroom goal is not 100% agreement, but rather, to make sure that all are heard and given the opportunity to share and defend their beliefs. This does not mean that anything goes in the classroom, and this does not mean that all opinions are fact. Keep the focus on claims, evidence, and reasoning when ideas are evaluated and critically analyzed.

This critical analysis takes practice and may need even more when disagreements and emotions are involved. If you are planning on discussing the election in November, then start practicing deliberations with “divisive” but non-political questions like:

  • Is a hotdog a sandwich?
  • Does a straw have one hole or two?
  • Is Batman/Iron Man a superhero or a rich man with expensive toys?
  • What makes a better pet – Cats or dogs?

It is through questions like these that students start to learn that they can strongly believe in something, disagree with a classmate, AND still leave the conversation as friends. The questions do not have to be this lighthearted and can be content-related, but we recommend starting with topics that are not as emotionally charged.

Discourse: When you do engage in deliberative conversations with your students, make sure that you have clear protocols and structures in place. Students need to understand the logistics of how the conversation will happen to have the best shot at success. Starting with the non-contentious conversations and questions is important, as it is a way to practice pedagogical strategies. This low-stakes method allows the focus to be more on learning how to talk with others where there is a less concern about emotions overriding procedures.

We recommend any of the following strategies for supporting civil discourse in the classroom, each of which you can read more about in our book Civil Discourse:

  • Structured Academic Controversy
  • Philosophical Chairs
  • Socratic Seminar
  • Inner/Outer Circle
  • Pinwheel Perspective Taking
  • Gallery Walk

Since students will need practice with the strategy that you are going to use, we recommend having one or two go-to strategies that can frequently be reinforced as opposed to trying to use a wide variety of discourse strategies. Allowing your students to feel comfortable in the strategy sets the stage for success when the emotions start to run high.

Whatever does or does not happen on Election Day and beyond, make sure that you have set up your students for success. Civic responsibility is the center of attention right now and as educators, we must step up to lead in this moment. Give students the space to learn, talk, and disagree. If they do not get that opportunity in your classroom, where else are they going to learn it?

Written by

Joe Schmidt has worked as a high school teacher and college professor for elementary pre-service teachers, and has also held roles in district and state-level leadership in support of both rural and urban schools. Throughout his career, he has served in a variety of leadership positions with social studies-related organizations across the United States.

Nichelle Pinkney has been a social studies educator for the past 16 years as a classroom teacher to a K-12 curriculum director.  She has presented and trained teachers nationally and internationally. Nichelle holds a Masters of Art in Educational Administration from Lamar University and a Bachelor’s degree from Salem College in Sociology, Women’s Studies (minor). Nichelle has found passion in providing equitable education to every student. She has worked to revise curriculum to ensure that it is diverse, equitable and inclusive for all students and teachers.

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