Election 2020: How Can You Teach the Election Process to Elementary Students?

LaNesha Tabb is a full-time educator who conducts workshops and keynotes where she encourages teachers to think outside the box by implementing globally and culturally relevant ideas into every lesson. She specializes in literacy, writing, and infusing social studies education into daily lessons. In this blog, LaNesha helps set the stage for the 2020 presidential election by offering her insights and tips on how to approach teaching the election process to elementary students.

When I think of teaching in an election year, I'm thinking about little kids all the way up to high school. It's one of those things where it's, in my opinion, so critical to get social studies and, specifically, civics education in front of students as soon as possible.

A few years ago, I remember reading the results of a Constitution Day quiz put out by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and I was astounded at the results. Some of the questions asked Americans to name all three branches of government—and only a third of the people surveyed could do that.

There was another question that asked respondents to just name one right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Only about 33% of the people could name a single right guaranteed. It made me chuckle at first. And then it made me really sad, because it shows what happens if we wait until senior year to put an emphasis on civics, which a lot of schools do. For so many high schoolers, government and economics—two of the most important subjects that we need as functioning adults—are smashed down into just one semester.

Knowing that, I'm always trying to think of ways to include civics in my elementary classroom, because the results of that quiz aren't super surprising to me. Thinking back on my own civics education, I remember a sprinkling here and there, maybe in middle school, but then it was really that high school class. And by then, I was halfway checked out because I was headed to college. I didn't want to sit there and learn about civics! But I'm a kindergarten teacher now, and I'm thinking about how I can put these concepts in front of some of our youngest students.

And what better way is there to do that than to lean into the things that are going to be happening during an election year? So I've got some tips that I'd like to share with you.

Tip #1: Actually TEACH IT

I encourage educators to avoid teaching voting to elementary students in a fun way. I see a lot of well-meaning teachers who want to cover the concept of voting, and they'll say, "Hey, it's an election year—we're going to learn about voting!" and they'll have their students vote on something like chocolate ice cream vs. vanilla ice cream, or gummy bears vs. gummy worms.

However, I don't see anything wrong with letting students know, even in kindergarten, that there's this country, and there's a thing called civics and another thing called politics, and let me show you what that means.

The kids already know something is happening—they see the commercials on TV, they hear the ads on the radio. So just teach it in a real and authentic way. Pull up videos; pull up pictures. Of course, you want to screen them first as the educator. But just show them what's really going on. Explain that there are these people who are trying to become the president, and that the president is the leader of the United States. Lean into the real events that are happening in an election year.

Tip #2: Let Students in on the Concept of POLITICAL PARTIES

You're probably thinking, "Whoa, I have to remain unbiased!" True, you never want to give your students any indication about your personal beliefs. But I don't think there's anything wrong with saying, "We have political parties in our country. These are the major political parties, and here are some of the big ideas they believe in."

I'm picturing teaching charts, and examples that say, "This is what it means if you support big government, and this is what it means if you don't," so kids can get an idea of what these things mean. After you have this conversation and students are able to see different ideas, then you can step back and say, "You know what? You're a person. You have a brain. You have your own thoughts. Which one of these do you think you would agree with more than the other?" See what they say.

And remember—do not affirm or scoff at anyone's beliefs. Just let them express their beliefs freely, because it's going to give them a chance to gather their own thoughts—because for so many of us, even as adults, our politics are swayed based on our family or our friends or the people around us. For so many people, especially those I know and have talked to—and myself included—we didn't get a chance to really develop our own thoughts about political parties. It was just told to us by the people surrounding us.

Giving students a chance to think critically about this would be so powerful, in my opinion.

Tip #3: BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS!

There are so many really great books you can read to your students to explain the process for holding an election to them. You can search the internet. If your local library has reopened, you can go there and ask for help. Pull in as many texts as you can and read them and break them down. Have conversations about them. You can create teaching charts about topics that you've learned about elections.

But books are going to be a very powerful tool to give your students access into what's going to be happening during an election year and why people are so passionate about it, why they have such strong opinions about it, and what this election means for us as people. You can pull all those sorts of things out of good literature.

So find as many books as you can—and start soon! We don't have to wait until November. You can be building students up before the actual election. And then by the time it happens, they are going to be primed and ready to go and have a really great sense of what's going on when the election actually happens.

****

Visit HMH's Election Connection page for election news, information, and resources.