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How Can Teachers and Students Discuss the 2020 Election?

October 20, 2020 / by Leah Bueso and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg

Whether you’re ready to admit it or not, this election is going to affect your classroom. You may not teach about voting or even be a social studies teacher, but the reality is that today’s political ethos stirs up worry, hope, excitement, and uncertainty in students, and likely, you too. And just wait until the results come in — students will want and need to talk about the implications. So why not channel all of this energy into productive learning about voting?

As experts in civic education, educator training, and youth voter engagement, both CERG and CIRCLE understand the challenges and urgency that comes with growing informed youth voters. Indeed, when educators taking our summer course, “Educating for Informed and Equitable Voting” surveyed youth about the upcoming election, their students expressed an overwhelming desire to learn about the mechanics of voting. One 11th grader aptly proclaimed: “I wish they would explain what the voting process is really like and how to vote…We're just expected to know it like we're expected to know how to do taxes.” And she’s exactly right! Voting, particularly the mechanics of registration and casting a ballot, is rarely taught in schools, even though it’s a skill that requires direct instruction and opportunities for practice like any other. You wouldn’t expect a child to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time, so why do we expect young people to automatically transform into active voters when they turn 18?

K-12 schools can serve as beacons of democracy within their communities by teaching about voting and elections so that students are prepared and informed. In fact, a survey conducted by CIRCLE found that youth who recalled being encouraged to vote in school or received instruction on voter registration were more likely to engage in civic activities and voted in the 2016 and 2018 elections at a rate 7 percentage points higher than youth that did not receive such support. In this regard, the data is clear — teaching about voting and elections matter. And the need to do it equitably is particularly evident as Black and Latinx youth from the survey were less likely to report being encouraged to vote than their White peers.

In the weeks leading up to this election, there is still time to include lessons about voting in your classroom. Based on our work with more than 40 educators from across the country, we’ve compiled a list of ideas to get you started. 

  • PROMOTE SAFETY

More than ever before, this election requires that we teach our students (and by extension their families) about ways to participate that will protect their health. Go over the mechanics of absentee and mail-in voting, including the deadlines to apply for a ballot, how to research candidates from home, and making sure to properly sign the envelope. And as a back-up plan, encourage students who missed the deadline to take advantage of early voting periods to avoid crowds that make social distancing more difficult. For those students interested in working at the polls or volunteering for a campaign, help them evaluate how the health risks may impact their home life and what they can do to minimize those risks. To find your state’s official election website, click here.

  • DIVE INTO THE DATA

One way to reinforce the importance of youth voting is to let students explore the data themselves. CIRCLE offers public access to their database on youth voting and civic engagement trends and the results can be broken down by state, congressional district or county. We recommend comparing “voter turnout” and “voter registration rate” at the local, state, and national levels so that students better understand the state of youth voting in their own community.  

  • KEEP IT CURRENT

While the history of suffrage is a common topic in social studies classes, students need to understand that voter suppression still happens today. In fact, a number of events from 2020 can serve as relevant and timely examples for a class deliberation or debate. Take, for instance, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to block ex-offenders from registering or voting after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that reinstated these rights. Try framing your discussion around these essential questions: Why might some states make it harder for people or certain groups of people to vote? Who is harmed by restrictive voting laws? Who benefits from them?  

  • IS IT LOCAL?

If your students feel disillusioned about whether their vote matters, show them what’s at stake in local elections. Many students may not realize that the school board, city council, judges, and sheriffs are responsible for decisions that hit close to home for young people — like funding for schools, policing reform, and where to place parks and affordable housing, to name a few. And it’s not uncommon for local elections to be decided by just tens, hundreds, or thousands of voters. Here are a few examples, but extra credit goes to those educators who find examples from their own county.

  • MAKE IT PURPOSEFUL

Another way to engage your students around voting and elections is to provide opportunities for them to take action regardless of eligibility. Too often, young people are frustrated by issues or candidates and don’t know what they can do to help, especially if they are unable to vote because of age or immigration status. But young people can play an important role by motivating eligible voters (e.g. relatives, older friends, community members) to cast their ballots, raising awareness about issues that aren’t receiving attention, and engaging in discussions about the election at home or in their community. And it can be empowering for youth to realize that their voice and influence matters. Check out Day 2 from our own voting lesson plan to build student agency and better prepare them to vote when it’s their turn.  

If you’re interested in additional lesson ideas around voting and the elections, the Teaching for Democracy Alliance offers a collection of resources.

Topics: Social Justice, Engagement, Social Studies, Civic Engagement, Social Media

Leah Bueso and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg

Written by Leah Bueso and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg

Leah Bueso is a postdoctoral scholar with the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on issues of racial and economic inequality in special education law and pedagogy, as well as issues of access to civic education for students with disabilities. Leah received her Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles and her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. Leah is also a credentialed special education teacher and reading specialist for children diagnosed with a language-based learning disability. She currently teaches the course "Educating for Informed and Equitable Voting" for in-service and pre-service educators. ----- As Director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg leads all of their research activities while charting a vision of how that research can inform policy and practice to strengthen youth civic engagement. Kei is particularly interested in providing various organizations and communities with research that would help increase civic and political engagement among ethnic minority and immigrant populations. Kei earned her doctorate degree in 2008 from Loyola University Chicago in Clinical Psychology and has extensive experience in working with youth of diverse backgrounds both as a researcher and a practitioner. Throughout her graduate career, she focused her research on positive youth development, including civic engagement. Prior to joining CIRCLE, Kei taught as Visiting Instructor of Psychology at Knox College, where she became involved as an active collaborator for the Center in Galesburg, a community-based citizen organization. In collaboration with the Center in Galesburg, Kei designed a course in Community Psychology in which she taught college students about various types of engagement and actively involved them in the local community.

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