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Teaching Democracy: Election Resources for the Win!

In an election year filled with flaws, these resources are flawless!

October 31, 2016
Lynn Salehi
Dean of Student Life
The Montclair Kimberley Academy
Montclair, NJ
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

If you're like many of us, every four years you search your computer or filing cabinet for those same tried-and-true lessons on voting and the presidential election. You update the "issues" portion to reflect current voter concerns, but the election process hasn't changed in the past four years. Still, few people would argue that this election season is like any we've ever seen, and that may mean we need to take a new approach to teaching it. Fortunately, there's a wealth of digital resources that can help us take a fresh look at the democratic process and help our students take a more critical view of what they see and hear in the media.

Several websites provide general guidance on having challenging classroom conversations about the election. Among Teaching Tolerance's many election-related resources is Teach 2016, which addresses concerns such as "My students want to know why they can't use certain words or phrases at school, when they hear the candidates saying these same words or phrases on television" and "My students want to know how I plan to vote in November. What should I tell them?" The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning provides "Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics" with tips on identifying a clear purpose, establishing ground rules, and including everyone, among others.

Introducing elections at the primary school level

Young students are perhaps the least likely to be exposed to a great deal of election rhetoric but the most likely to be confused by it. The Time for Kids website provides students with an election-terms "Electionary" and safe, if somewhat sanitized, articles ranging from "Meet the Candidate" biographies to kid-friendly debates on questions such as "Does the Electoral College Make Sense?" and "What to Call Bill?" For a general introduction to the election process, try BrainPop's offerings, including "Voting," "Political Parties," and "Presidential Election." Also offered are activities, games, and quizzes that accompany each video.

Going further: elections at the middle school level

iCivics has an election simulation for middle school students that enables them to run their own presidential election campaign by fundraising, making campaign speeches, and tracking electoral college votes. This is a rather long and detailed simulation, however, so you might want to offer it as an enrichment or a home activity if you don't have a lot of time to devote exclusively to election topics. Rock the Vote provides a fresh and engaging "History of Voting" video, and Christina Greer's TED-Ed video and lesson “Does Your Vote Count?” is a relatively painless way for middle schoolers to make sense of the electoral college. True political junkies might want to check out the "Dig Deeper" section for an explanation of what happens if the electoral college is tied.

Middle school students are often very tuned in to the rhetoric of election season and need help wading through the media hype and forming opinions based on facts. Your students might be inspired by the "Wake Up to Politics" blog -- election news collected and curated daily by eighth-grader Gabe Fleisher. ProCon's summary chart provides students with a quick snapshot of the candidates' positions on a variety of issues, while Newsela offers an excellent arrangement for digging deep by exploring collections of short articles on topics related to each issue. iSideWith's online quiz helps students put issues above personalities by answering a series of questions about their own positions on the issues and showing how they match with the positions of each candidate.

Ready to vote: election coverage in high school

High school students are generally better equipped to think critically about both the process and politics of a presidential election, but they may not do so without prompting. The history of political parties in the United States is fascinating and complex, and students can explore it in Learn NC's article “Political Parties in the United States," including the diagram below, which could keep them -- and you -- busy for a very long time.

Khan Academy, whose videos likely are already familiar to many high school students, offers a no-nonsense explanation of the electoral college, and the accompanying Q&A section addresses many of the questions your students are likely to have. When it's time to discuss and debate the issues, the New York Times' "Room for Debate" feature is an excellent starting place, offering contrasting opinion pieces by respected authors on a variety of issues at the forefront of the 2016 election, from "Is Obamacare Sustainable?" to "Can a Supreme Court Justice Denounce a Candidate?" Think the Vote's website offers an exploration of nine key election issues and a detailed description of the candidates' position on each, as well as topics ranging from the history of election debates to the influence of media. Lastly, high school students will undoubtedly enjoy checking Politifact's "Truth-o-Meter" to find which candidates' statements are deemed "pants-on-fire."