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How Do I Talk to My Students About Politics? 9 Age-Appropriate Classroom Strategies

How Do I Talk to My Students About Politics? 9 Age-Appropriate Classroom Strategies

The 2020 presidential election season is upon us, and (once again) we’ll be bombarded with political advertisements and conversation in the media for the next year. As the election becomes top of mind for many families, your students are going to get curious and ask questions as they begin to form their political opinions. After all, you know that students are sponges and that they absorb what is talked about at home.

How can you, as an educator, answer these questions about politics, address these issues in the classroom, and make these conversations about a touchy subject productive and appropriate? Luckily, there are many resources available to help you do so and multiple ways to talk about politics in the classroom without taking a side (as much as you may want to). Here are a few grade-level strategies to help you tackle these conversations in the classroom:

If you teach elementary students:

  • Seek out child-friendly news sources. For this age group, it’s all about breaking down the events of the day in terms that are age-appropriate. Finding a news source designed for children, such as TIME for Kids, can help you discuss current events in a way that is appropriate, without exposing the youngest group of schoolchildren to something that may be difficult to grasp or hard to explain.

 

  • Talk about respectful conversation strategies. Debate is a huge part of politics, and teaching your students the basics of how to debate without hurting feelings is an important step in introducing them to the world of politics. Talk to your students about why it’s important to be respectful when having a conversation with someone who you might not agree with; how to establish best practices when it comes to active listening, using respectful vocabulary; and how to disagree with someone without being rude or judgmental. This list from the James Stanfield Company is a great place to get started. The key to talking about these issues in the classroom is setting a list of ground rules so that these conversations are productive.

  • Stay mindful of your own emotions. Young children often can’t fully understand what’s going on in the world of politics, but they are incredibly observant when it comes to emotions and tone of voice. Stay mindful of your own emotions when having these conversations in the classroom, even if you feel like you’re already staying neutral.

If you teach middle school students:

  • Analyze the media surrounding the election. Whether we like to believe it or not, the media shape our belief systems in ways we might not even notice. Have your students analyze debates, news stories, advertisements, and political cartoons, and have a discussion surrounding these sources. Have your students reflect on the following questions:
    • How are the candidates portrayed in these stories?
    • Are the media sources biased?
    • How have political headlines changed over time?
    • How has civil involvement and response to politics changed over time?
    • How does the source cite its information?

  • Discuss how elections really work. It’s easy for students to fall into thinking that elections are just a popularity contest and that the candidate with the most general votes, wins. However, the Electoral College has been an important piece of the democracy we have in our country, so take some time to explain what this body’s role in an election is. Compare the presidential election to others, like a state, local, or even student body election. The video below by TED-Ed does a great job of explaining the Electoral College and the history behind it.

  • Talk about the difference between action-grabbing statements versus meaningful statements. Middle school students are smart enough to recognize that certain statements made by candidates often stir up specific emotions, but they often don’t understand the depth of these statements. Take a look at what candidates are saying on the campaign trail, in rallies, and during debates, and discuss the differences between a statement being merely attention-grabbing or actually meaningful. Explain that candidates often say certain things to make headlines, appeal to emotions, and/or gain an advantage over their rivals.

 

If you teach high school students:

  • Look at the influence of social media on elections. With the rise of social media, election interference has been top of mind for the last decade. It’s a complicated topic that even adults have a hard time understanding, but today’s high schoolers haven’t known a world without smartphones. They’re tech-savvy, but they may not fully grasp how videos and images they see as they’re scrolling through digital screens are paid for and targeted to their feeds. According to digital marketing experts, Americans are exposed to around 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements each day. In the 1970s, that number was about 500. Talk to your students about how this impacts society and what changes they notice.
  • Encourage civic participation. One of the hardest things about teaching high school during an election year is having students who want to do something but who are held back by the inability to vote due to age. Do some research for these students on ways that they can stay involved and make a difference. Some examples include holding a registration drive, attending rallies, and doing a research project on a candidate’s platform and presenting their findings to those who can vote. According to Youth Service America, young people who are encouraged to discuss elections are more likely to vote and be involved. Check out this article published by the National Council for the Social Studies for ideas on how to encourage your students to become more civically engaged.

 

  • Work with students to fact-check what they see. Social media has its benefits, but also its downfalls. Notably, in the last few elections, social media has been a place where misinformation can be spread quickly. Talk to your students about how to do their own research and fact-check the claims they’re seeing on social media, especially before such claims are taken as fact. Images are also often easily manipulated and can be powerful in supporting a certain viewpoint. This blog post offers up a few different ways you can teach your students to find credible online sources.

Interested in more resources about how to discuss politics and other sensitive topics in the classroom? Check out this list from the National Education Association to get started!

brita.hammer@edmentum.com's picture
Brita Hammer received a B.S. in Marketing at North Dakota State University. She started with Edmentum in March 2018 and currently serves as a Marketing Associate. Brita is passionate about providing teachers resources to help their students achieve in and out of the classroom.

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