October 26, 2020

5 Lessons for Civics Teachers Navigating an Election Year

By Kara Cisco

You’ve heard it ad nauseam this election year: Young people (yes, students) have the power to make a difference. But are we teaching them to understand that power and influence? How we teach about civic engagement, power, and policymaking can make all the difference.

We know young adults vote at lower rates, move more frequently, are less likely to drive, and less likely to be contacted directly by political campaigns. But I can also tell you that this generation of students is one of the most civically aware that I have seen in my years of teaching civics, and we have the power to turn that energy into action and engagement.

Being a Civics teacher during this election cycle is (uh …) different from other years. Between the pandemic, the civil unrest, and the white identity politics expressed through various extremist groups across the country, this is not a typical election. Any teacher would find teaching civics during this election challenging (nevermind the challenges of building relationships with students while teaching remotely, teaching three or more cohorts at once in hybrid). Doing the election justice feels like an insurmountable challenge. I don’t have all the answers, but here are five ways I’ve  linked historical foundations with present circumstances  to help students find their role in this civic moment: 

1. Start with the Basics

In my civics class, we examine the world around us—mostly through the context of racial justice and, currently, COVID-19. At the same time, we evaluate the basic principles of government, such as popular sovereignty, federalism and rule of law. This year, more than any other, it is absolutely essential to me that students understand these founding ideals. When my students deliberate about whether Classical Republicanism or Natural Rights Theory is a more suitable philosophy for combatting COVID-19 or whether our unique system of federalism is an asset or a liability during a pandemic, I know that they are able to connect these pillars of our democracy to the challenges facing our candidates—and ourselves— today.

2. Deliberations, Not Debates 

There is a vast difference between a debate and deliberation. In a debate, the goal is to win. In deliberation, the goal is to understand. In this particular political moment, I am most interested in building the capacity for students to sustain difficult conversations about multiple sides of challenging topics. Even on Zoom, we bring in Socratic Seminar protocols, accountable talk features, virtual “talking tokens” and the Courageous Conversation compass to engage in meaningful conversations about the topics that concern us the most as we approach November 3 and beyond. Teaching students how to lead, moderate and maintain these conversations on their own, and norming the process of presenting evidence to support multiple perspectives on dynamic issues helps take the partisan out of the political and (with hope) builds lifelong stamina for civil discourse. 

3. This is Not a Textbook Moment

Are you a civics teacher? If so, open up your textbook, and take a look at what it has to say about presidential appointments to the Supreme Court. Does your textbook’s overview of nominations, hearings, advice, and consent match what we have seen on CSPAN this past week? This year? For the last four years? 

The structure is there sure—but in practice, nothing that has happened in recent memory could be described as textbook. Speaking personally, in the time it takes my textbook to describe the entire legislative branch, I am still just beginning to explain the filibuster rule. So, if you’re going to use the textbook, use it for comparison purposes, or for comic relief, or to collectively marvel at the serious disconnect between the oversimplified summary of a deeply complex reality. 

4. We are All Media Literacy Teachers 

If we want to live in a world in which an entire generation of people are not persuaded by Russian bots and conspiracy theorists on 8chan, we all need to become media literacy teachers. All of us. Starting right now. The good news is that there are plenty of resources out there to help, including so many online games and activities. One of my favorites is Bad News, in which students try to generate fake news to help their candidate win. (Something about seeing how the sausage is made seems to be extremely effective.) And there are other things we can do as teachers, including maintaining that students provide evidence to support any claim they make as a norm and teaching students to expect the same from any source they view. 

5. In the End, It’s All About Suffrage

I fear that the story of this election cycle will be the story of voter suppression. It has been for every election in our country’s history. For that reason, I implore us to teach our students about purging voter rolls, the impact of Voter ID laws, partisan gerrymandering, and voter intimidation. Teach them about felon disenfranchisement, about the closing of polling locations, and the strategic locations of DMVs throughout the U.S. But don’t stop there. 

We need to connect these modern-day efforts to suppress the vote to poll taxes, literacy tests, and the Grandfather Clause, and thereby ensure that the memory of all of those who have fought—and died—for the right to vote is alive in our class. Harry and Harriette Moore burned to death in their Florida home after registering people to vote.  Fannie Lou Hamer lost her eyesight and her ability to walk without a limp to exercise this right. We have to go beyond apparent leaders to explore the vast networks of activists, including those suffragists we rarely hear about. Chinese American activists like S.K. Chan, Native Americans like John Elk, and Mexican leaders like Hector P. Garcia, a World War II veteran who devoted his life to raising money for poll taxes in Texas. We should teach about suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Standon, but we can’t forget to teach students about women like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who were marching literally behind them. 

Why does all of this matter? Put simply, there were more registered non-voters in the 2016 election than there were voters for Clinton or voters for Trump. Fighting against the dual threat of voter suppression and voter apathy will be this generation’s work, and it’s up to us—the Civics teachers—to prepare them for that mission. How students understand their power, navigate our systems, and advocate for themselves in the midst of this pandemic, altered education environment, and our next normal depends on how they understand history and their agency.

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