Teaching politics during an election year is always tricky for teachers, who fear being accused of trying to sway students one way or the other. But this year is especially tough, given the nastiness of the campaign. Here, from Elliott Rebhun, editor-in-chief of Scholastic Classroom Magazines, are suggestions for how teachers can address the important issues without getting lost in the circus.
By Elliott Rebhun
For educators, the 2016 election is proving trickier than most to talk about with students. From nasty debates to controversial positions on the issues, this election can be a tough one to discuss in classrooms at any grade level.
But educators across the nation don’t want to miss this chance to teach kids about how our democracy works, and to engage them in the democratic process. Teachers have only four opportunities, at best—from the time students start kindergarten until they graduate from high school—to let their kids experience a presidential election.
And the civics of this election doesn’t need to be lost in the circus. Like any controversial topic, the election can be taught as long as it’s handled appropriately for each grade level.
What follows is a look at how the content and approach to election coverage varies from kindergarten through high school. Our goal is always to engage students in the electoral process in age-appropriate ways, no matter how contentious any given election gets.
Kindergarten to Grade 2
In teaching elections in K–2, we focus on the importance of everyone being part of the election process. For example, in our magazines for kindergarten and first grade, an upcoming election story is a riff on one of the most popular picture books teachers use to explain the voting process, “Duck for President” (by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin). Once teachers read the book aloud, they can discuss how adults actually do vote for president, and that, of course, a duck cannot be president!
In second grade, we ramp up coverage with a narrative that follows a child and his mom as she decides whom to vote for. The focus is on good citizenship: mom is responsible about deciding how to vote, and she is respectful when discussing the election with people who disagree with her.
By the time students are in grades 3–6, they can handle real election news as long as it’s on their level. From the primaries through Inauguration Day, we explain the civics of the election and cover news from the campaign trail, often with the help of Scholastic News Kid Reporters. We also connect the content to what would interest—and matter most—to kids.
For example, in recent profiles of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for fourth- through sixth- graders, we talked about what they were each like as kids, and we included childhood photos. And in a few weeks, we’ll explain the gubernatorial and congressional races, letting kids know that the outcomes of state and local races will have effects they can see, from new roads to better schools. We’ll also explain the Electoral College in a way that upper elementary students can grasp—a lesson many adults could use as well!
Teenagers are ready to handle what’s happening in the news—and it’s important to engage them right away, since major events quickly appear on social media. While they’re eager to discuss what’s going on in the presidential election, teenagers also have a lot of questions, and need balanced information and analysis.
For middle school and high school, content needs to help students understand how election issues connect to American history and why they matter for everyone—even teens. For example, recent cover stories in our middle school and high school magazines outlined the candidates’ very different visions for America’s future—from immigration policy to Supreme Court nominations—to give students a clear grasp of what’s at stake for the nation.
We also provide students with a solid education in the civics of the election, helping to enliven lessons on topics such as the Electoral College with bold infographic explainers and conversation-sparking debates, such as, “Should the president be elected by popular vote?”
Finally, we aim to help teens feel personally connected to the presidential contest. We engage them with topics they’re sure to have opinions on—such as whether polling place selfies should be banned. This season, we’re also running face-off essays by teens who support Clinton and Trump, which we hope will inspire our readers to get actively involved in elections—whether that means volunteering for a candidate, encouraging others to vote, or, for those who will be 18, casting a ballot on November 8.
Whether kids are entering kindergarten or finishing their last year of high school, this year’s election provides a vast array of teachable moments, and educators can bring compelling, balanced, accurate, and age-appropriate content into the classroom. What’s important is to make the election exciting and relevant, instill a sense of civic responsibility, and handle controversy with care.
For more on election coverage for kids, visit www.scholastic.com/election.