7 Ways to Teach the ELECTION in English Classes

8th Grader {looking confused}: "Mrs. H, I thought I really liked this speech by my favorite candidate... But, like, the WHOLE thing is basically just, like, fallacies."

Me {biting my tongue}: "Huh, that's interesting. Why do you think that happened?"

One of the best gifts I can give students as an English teacher is the real-world literacy of being able to, as I tell them, "filter the baloney in the world" and recognize the good and bad of what they hear.

Adults are constantly trying to tell our teens what to believe (and do, buy, etc.), so we English teachers can offer SO much to help students navigate fact from fiction, regardless of political party or belief system.

If we believe in the importance of real-world literacy, then we can't shy away completely from major elections and politics. Instead, let's be the role model adults that students may be lacking, and teach the skills they need to be functional voters later.

Taking the Leap during an Election Year
Don't worry, I hear your worries already - is this too controversial for me to touch? Will I upset stakeholders and/or students if I get too political? Isn't this more of a history/Social Studies teacher's turf?

Maybe it's because I have a passion for public speaking and politics, but to me, election seasons are an English teacher's DREAM. Student interest is higher (or at least student awareness is), and there's so much nonfiction fodder for good reading and viewing that I can't help taking on some of it. 

So, if you're open-minded to tiptoe into the election with your ELA class, here are several ways you could do so, depending on what timeframe, standards, or topics you're dealing with!

Here's the context that I'm operating within, just so you can view my list with some understanding of my ground rules and teaching context: 
  • At my school, I'm NOT allowed to tell students whom I'm voting for or what I think about *some* ballot issues, so as to not influence the students improperly... thus, none of the activities in this post will put you in that position, either. 
  • My Social Studies teacher next door is teaching students the Electoral college and other good factual knowledge, so I don't feel obligated to teach certain factual knowledge. I'm focusing more on skills. 
Ready for some inspiration? Check out this list of ideas, and think about what is in your comfort zone (and time constraints).

1. In-Class Discussion: Setting Ground Rules 
Make sure you start with a brief chat in which you either set mandatory, teacher-written ground rules, OR build a list together as a class.

Elections are hard enough to teach about, but they become even more challenging to address when the election and its media coverage starts getting out of control. There are ways that you can safely discuss the election and make your classroom a safe place to reasonably examine all candidates and issues. Learn more in this post.

Feel free to steal my mini-posters (on Google Drive) HERE. You'll need to hit the "Make a Copy" button if you want to edit it. :)

2. Share why it's important to YOU
To whatever extent your school policies and personal ethics allow, tell students why voting, caring about the election, and studying the issues are all important to YOU.

For example, I'm honest with my students about the fact that my mother was a politician in my hometown. I tell them what it was like to be on her campaign, to have doors slammed in my face while passing out flyers, how nerve-wreaking Election day was while watching poll results come in, and how upset I get over people who opt out of voting or who believe in mud-slinging lies.

Without revealing my political beliefs, I still share my life experiences and offer a counterpoint to some of the negativity they hear elsewhere.

3. Learn how to Debate (Properly)
As much as we want to have in-class discussion, English teachers have a few problems:
  • Not every student WANTS to debate politics, and 
  • Not every student knows how to debate ethically and/or professionally
  • Not every student is mature enough to follow structure/logic, and they may resort to fallacious tactics to "win"
One of my most popular units of all time (among students) is my Debate Unit. They love getting choice in debating silly or serious topics, AND they get a crash course in debate, since my materials don't assume any prior knowledge. 

4. Learn the good AND bad techniques in speeches (& commercials!)
Elections are hard enough to teach about, but they become even more challenging to address when the election and its media coverage starts getting out of control. There are ways that you can safely discuss the election and make your classroom a safe place to reasonably examine all candidates and issues. Learn more in this post.
Most students know that a speech "sounds good" or "sounds bad", but they don't know why, or they don't have the precise vocabulary to identify why a moment in the transcript was flawed.

Through no one's fault, it appears that logic and advanced argument aren't in a lot of curriculums until/unless students get to advanced classes... seems like a societal flaw when we're graduating students who can't pinpoint the good and bad of what they hear, right?

To work on this skill, I recently uploaded my Rhetoric, Propaganda, and Fallacies Flipbook, which was the centerpeice of my overall Argument Critique/Intro to Rhetoric Unit. It's been a big hit the two times I've taught it to mixed and advanced-level eighth graders, and I encouraged them to keep the booklets until high school (especially if they might pursue AP US History or AP Language classes!)

Don't have much time? You can still crash-course student vocabulary with the booklet and then play a few political commercials in class to see which techniques they can pick up on!

5. Guard your verbals and non-verbals
In a lot of classrooms, teachers are already carefully filtering their actions during an election season to avoid unprofessionally influencing their students' opinions... but not everyone is filtering their own negativity.

Even if you are seriously concerned about the election and the "what-ifs" of its outcome, try to check your pessimism at the front door. Almost every conceivable media source (and probably adult) in their lives is just relishing all the speculative fear tactics, and some students need to be reassured that everything will still be okay. 

This could even be a research activity or journal prompt! Ask students to investigate or explain things like the positives of society, why the world is NOT going to end, how to achieve unity after an election, or what students can do to influence society.

Be a soothing presence in your students' lives, and your classroom will remain a safe place to be.

6. Read Articles on the Issues (and the OTHER ballot races)
First of all, it's important to remember that this election is about more than just the president... especially since local government and other issues will have equal or more weight on students' everyday lives.

Article Superlatives: Non-Fiction Reading Competition
Second, dabbling with other ballot issues is a GREAT opportunity to bring in short articles and nonfiction reading... especially the kind that YOU don't have to prep! ;-)

Consider hosting a special Election Edition of my Article Superlatives assignment, in which students choose their own articles to read, analyze, and imitate.

It's a good way to allow for student choice and empower them to discover facts about issues that are important to them!

7. Digital Citizenship (and Personal Ethics!)
One interesting element of this election has not only been the personal and professional lives of the candidates (past AND present), but how each one has dealt with social media.

... including social media and email use that both candidates REGRET.

This might be the perfect time to have a Socratic Seminar or other discussion about... 
  • Online privacy (or lack thereof)
  • Safe social media use
  • How bosses and clients can see your online presence
  • What is okay to say or post online, and why
Want them to write? Ask students to come up with their own personal code of ethics, explore future jobs (and their social media complexities), or simply evaluate their past and present practices on Instagram and Twitter. 

Thank you for reading. I'd love to hear your other election ideas in the comments!

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