How to Teach a Polarizing Election and Prioritize Students' Emotional Health

We invited Chris Dier, social studies teacher and the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, to share with us how he is planning to teach his students about the presidential election and address the challenges educators may face.

The 2020 presidential election will present a challenge to educators across the country as they navigate this topic with their students. We are teaching at a time when we are uncertain of who our next president will be as mail-in ballots continue to trickle in and our current president declares both victory and fraud. Students are going to have a lot of questions, thoughts, and concerns as this is unfamiliar territory for them, and teachers are tasked to address them.

First and foremost, it’s best that educators seek to ensure the social and emotional health of the students and cultivate relationships based on tolerance and empathy prior to having these conversations and conducting these lessons. We must teach, but we must care first. Ensure norms for productive discussions are established and students have healthy relationships with one another. Students are experiencing an atypical amount of stress due to the ongoing pandemic, subsequent economic burdens, and all of the events brought on in 2020. Their screens are overloaded with information from various avenues. They may not have the ability to process this as adults would. Classrooms provide a space for them to process.

Despite the challenges teaching the election will inevitably present, teachers—especially those who teach content applicable to these events—may do a disservice to students if they choose to ignore them altogether. As teachers, we must ensure we prepare our students for these scenarios and use them as teachable moments as politics already gravely impacts their lives. The day after the election, I provided time for my students to reflect by jotting down their thoughts in a free-write. They were then allowed to share their thoughts, if they chose to do so. Afterwards, I had an honest, student-led conversation with them.

Chris Dier in his classroom at Chalmette High School in early 2020—prior to school closures due to COVID-19.

I plan to craft lessons if the issue remains unresolved or gets tangled in the courts, which is a legitimate concern. Here are five ideas for educators to explore the election with the students.

1. Study the History of Voting

Have the students study the tumultuous history of voting in the United States. Break students up into small groups (or breakout rooms if you’re virtual, like me) and give each group a different demographic to study. Only wealthy, white landowners were granted the right to vote during the early formation of the United States. Have students present on how that changed, the impact of that change, the contemporary challenges of voter suppression, and what all of it means for modern elections.

2. Analyze the Electoral College

Break students up into groups and have each group explore an aspect of the Electoral College. One group could explore its origins and history and address the debates the writers of the Constitution had during its inception. Another group could analyze its impact on past elections while another set of students could be tasked with developing a plan to modernize the institution. Finish by moderating a student-led debate or discussion on pressing questions: What is the history and purpose of the Electoral College? Is the Electoral College relevant today? Is the Electoral College equitable? If not, who does it impact the most? What is the future for the Electoral College? Should the Electoral College be revised or abolished?

This is also an interesting lesson for STEM teachers and allows them to get creative. Students can apply learned algorithms to crunch the popular vote and Electoral College votes and create various scenarios based on different data sets--for instance,population growth, shifting demographics, and historical data. Or they can develop algorithms to make the Electoral College more equitable.

3. Study Previous Contested Elections

This is not our country’s first contested election, and it will not be the last. Break students up into groups and give them a contested election to study. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams over a heavily disputed election. In 1824, no president received the required electoral votes to become president. In 1876, the election was so heavily disputed that a secret deal was made to give Republicans the presidency if they ended federal occupation of the South. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote and George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote after a controversial Supreme Court ruling ended Florida’s recount. After studying their election, they could present their findings to the class and draw parallels to the current election.

"Ensure norms for productive discussions are established and students have healthy relationships with one another."

4. Study the Policies of Each Candidate

Break the students into groups and have them study the policies each candidate supports and the impacts of those policies. Groups can explore how each candidate plans to address climate change, education, racism, and other hot-button issues. Teachers could also let students pick the issues that matter to them to research and present.

5. Analyze the Potential Outcomes

If it remains a contested election with an uncertain outcome, then the decision is in the balance of just a few swing states. Have students research forecasted outcomes and debate which outcome is more likely given the circumstances.

These lessons will not be perfect or easy, as students are also susceptible to the partisanship of our political climate. But such lessons are necessary. We cannot shy away from how politics impacts our students; we must grapple it with them. I do not recommend doing more than one of these activities as students may feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Be sure to return to your regular classroom schedule as a sense of normalcy can assist many students during this unusual time. For many, school can be an outlet to escape or a space that brings happiness and connection. We shouldn’t lose that as we teach these historic moments.

We must keep the emotional health of the students at the forefront regardless of how we decide to teach the election results. Our students are our future, and they need to become accustomed to tackling these issues head-on.

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Chris Dier was a guest on the Teachers in America series of our HMH Learning Moments podcast in April 2020. Learn more about Chris’s focus on providing an equitable and multicultural education for all.

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