In the political climate of America today, you may find it hard to teach about elections without bias getting in the way, but teaching today’s students the importance of voting is critical to making our Democracy work – it is vital to the success of our government (both local and national) and our nation.
One of the best things about America’s government is that it was intentionally designed to include the people it governs, yet so many make the choice to become active recipients of other’s choices. Bystanders of the democratic process. I think we would all agree that, in part, the role of education is to help students become responsible, active participants in society. If this is true, then our U.S. History classes must include a discussion on the importance of voting.
Build excitement about the process
While your students are not old enough to vote yet, they will be one day. Help them see the significance of being able to have a say in issues that affect them. I like to bring in examples from other countries where the people have no choice but to follow the government and have no opportunity to challenge the thinking of the government without repercussions. If I can get my students to see the injustice in the example, I have a much better chance of getting them excited about being able to challenge the government through voting.
Post an ELECTION WORD WALL in your class to help familiarize students with election terminology.
Focus on the process not the candidates
How do we teach about voting without demonstrating a strong bias for one candidate over another? Or one issue over another? One thing I do is build excitement around the election itself and focus on the process not the candidates. Candidates change but the purpose of voting doesn’t.
Walk your students through the election process as it happens. Keep a class record of the primaries and explain how candidates earn delegates. Have students evaluate debates based on candidate performance and what they understand about how to debate. Explain to students the ways in which people can vote (ballots, absentee, vote by mail, polling stations). Review the results of the general election and how the electoral college works.
Teaching the election process helps students to see elections as a repeating process and not about a few specific people that may or may not be on the ballot when they are old enough to vote.
Control the controversy
By focusing on the process of elections, it doesn’t really matter if Candidate A lied about something or Candidate B said something your students disagree with because that’s not the focus of your teaching. Yes, students will bring in their knowledge of the candidates, but if you focus on the overall democratic process you can usually squash any inappropriate or controversial issues that will arise. Be prepared though, as those things will come up in class, but refocusing the attention back on the process will help keep those details from being a distraction. Remember you are helping students understand the importance of voting NOT helping them chose a candidate!
Remember you are helping students understand the importance of voting NOT helping them chose a candidate!
Share election results
Be sure to share the results of the elections and help them understand what the votes mean. Remember to keep the focus on the process not the specific candidates or initiatives that change every year. It is during these lessons I like to bring up the numbers – how many people voted? What do the percentage actually mean? Students are always surprised to learn that if 30% of eligible voters vote that means that people have allowed just 16% of the people to make a decision for them. These are typically my most engaged lessons and where students begin to feel the importance of having their voices heard!
Don’t just focus on national elections
Throughout my career I’ve seen social studies classes get very excited about the Presidential election – while that is important, elections happen every year at the local level. Government is not just about the President, it’s about your governor, city council members, school board members, etc…, as well as, many different initiatives – those elections are just as important. As a social studies teacher, elections should be part of your curriculum every year, not just during Presidential election years.
Helpful products to use with your class.
Don’t let today’s political climate scare you away from discussing elections or taking the time to really educate your students on their importance. The longer we wait to encourage our citizens to take an active role in government the less likely we have as a nation to get people to participate.