The morning of election day, social studies teacher Chris Peterson lead the 25 students of a St. Alphonsus seventh grade class out the main doors of the K-8 school and into the surrounding streets. The class lofted signs bearing messages that encouraged viewers to cast their ballot. “Keep Calm and Vote” screamed one sign in large blue block letters. “Just Do It, Vote Today” read another, the “v” in vote replaced by a Nike swoosh. Marching within the limits of Chicago’s north side, students counted car honks as they wove their way through surrounding neighborhoods.
While the volatile nature of the 2016 election did little to alter Peterson’s lessons plans, his approach was not necessarily shared by all teachers. Challenged by the divisive rhetoric of the recent election cycle, some social studies teachers approached the subject delicately with students, weighing the decision of which subjects to address, which to avoid, and what views to disclose. We spoke with two other parochial-school social studies teachers on their experiences during the election and their approaches within the classroom.
More than 40 percent of kindergarten through 12th grade teachers were hesitant to address the 2016 election altogether, according to a recent study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Study participants cited a variety of guiding factors: fears about job safety, instruction
from supervisors, and disgust for the candidates and their positions. Teachers that moved forward with election units reported a decision to direct attention away from the campaigns’specific messages.
The 2016 election was a powerful teaching tool according to Paula McAvoy, co-author of “The Political Classroom” and faculty member at UW Madison. Instead of shielding students from contentious issues, she argued that such political controversies are key teaching moments. “We have harmed the next generation if we have not gotten them ready to participate in the political controversies of the day,” said McAvoy.
However, on the front lines of actual classrooms, some teachers acknowledged altering election lessons over the past year.
Megan McDermott, the junior high social studies teacher for Chicago Catholic school St. Josaphat, noted a similar shift from previous years. As a social studies teacher at Corpus Christie Catholic school in Texas during the 2012 election, McDermott focused her election lesson plans on the candidates. This year, she flipped her curriculum to focus on the issues instead.
The 27-year-old teacher pointed to the polarizing election and the strong opinions of her students as the reasons for her decision. “I felt like if we used the candidates as the starting point then it was going to be an unproductive classroom that would turn into unstructured debate,” said McDermott. Dividing her election unit between several key issues, McDermott addressed education, immigration, income and gender equality and terrorism and security.
Pattrick Nicolini facilitated election discussions with his students as a substitute teacher for junior high history courses in Mishawaka, Indiana during the 2012 election. As the social studies teacher for St. Josaphat’s fifth grade classes, Nicolini avoided the subject of the 2016 election throughout most of the fall. Concerned about the dearth of age-appropriate material and the ramifications of interrupting his class’ US History survey unit, Nicolini dedicated two classes to a lesson on the electoral college and potential election outcomes.
The 28-year-old teacher also found himself unsure which topics were appropriate for his fifth grade students and how to address election issues in terms that they could adequately understand. “You don’t necessarily want to be the one to broach topics if they have not been covered at home already,” said Nicolini.
However, there’s nothing to be gained from skipping election lessons, says Diana Hess, Dean of UW Madison’s School of Education. “All elections are important to teach about, especially all national elections, but this election, because it was so pitched is especially important to teach,” said Hess.
Though Chris Peterson’s election day day excursion into the streets of Chicago’s north side was a success, he decided to forgo the student mock debates that he had put on in the past. According to Peterson, his decidedly liberal classes were unlikely to take such debates seriously. He continued to teach units from previous years on the electoral college, presidential debate analysis and candidate research.
In Peterson’s words, the goal of these lessons are that students leave his social studies classes with a better understanding of how to be productive citizens. “I’m not going to know if the work we’re doing here today is going to pay off. I’m just hoping that when they turn 18 they are going to want to go register,” said Peterson.