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Teaching About Elections During an Election Year

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Living Through a Civics Lesson

As a U.S. History /Social Studies educator, teaching about the federal government, how it works, and why elections matter is a critical part of my curriculum. When teaching a group of 8th-graders about civic engagement, I have to ensure they know and understand the key components of our federal government -- the Bill of Rights, the amendment process, the three branches of government and the roles of each, how our system of checks and balances works, and the seven principles of government. For students to really understand these concepts they have to ingest a lot of technical vocabulary and detail. This is especially true in an election year when they are living through an actual civics lesson and, inevitably, bringing questions to class. If you teach long enough you will find yourself teaching during an election year. Fortunately, there are some up sides. The questions students bring to class mean they are engaged and that gives you the chance to breathe more life into the usual vocabulary, making the lessons more relevant.

I recently had an opportunity to think about how to structure those lessons during an election year to push students to think critically about what they were learning.  As Social Studies teachers we have the duty and honor to teach civic responsibility, something our students will continue to use and be involved in for their rest of their lives. Therefore, I consider this content to be extremely important. Working closely with KERA, a PBS member station in Dallas-Fort Worth I put together an Election Toolkit that includes a series of lessons to help and students learn about the election process. The toolkit covers four key areas: Electoral College, Primary Elections and Caucuses, Political Parties, and Presidential Campaigns and Debates. 

What is a Toolkit?

I am a huge fan of toolkits, which is essentially exactly what it sounds like: a kit full of tools to help you build or create something. In this case, PBS and member stations often create toolkits centered around a certain topic or theme. The toolkits can include anything from external resources and links, clips from PBS documentaries and shows, and complete lesson plans and student handouts. Toolkits put useful resources at the fingertips of  teachers to help them create full, enriching lessons. Keep reading for a breakdown of the entire toolkit

Electoral College

When engaging in election conversations with my students, this area is normally one of the most difficult to explain and teach. In this particular lesson we have students define what the Electoral College is, learn arguments for the pros and cons of keeping it or replacing it with another method, and allow students the ability to interact with an interactive electoral college map. This particular resource also builds student’s background knowledge which then allows them the ability to predict election outcomes. The Election Decoder is also a tool that can be used to create and guide conversations with other classrooms and teachers in their own buildings, across their districts or even across the country. You can even share your class' prediction on social media to spark discussion.

Primary Elections and Caucuses 

In a national Presidential election year, it is important to teach students the process that leads up to choosing presidential candidates. In this resourcestudents will learn about the differences between caucuses and primaries and learn about the significance of Super Tuesday and Texas’s participation. This lesson includes great external resources from PBS LearningMedia and Khan Academy.

Political Parties

A couple of areas I often focus on to help build student knowledge around the political parties is the history behind the foundation of the parties and allowing students to research the political stances of both parties. This resource helps students get an opportunity to reflect about similarities and differences within the two party system through a Venn Diagram. I also always encourage students to learn about third parties by asking critical questions such as, "Third Parties often don't win elections. Why?"

Presidential Campaigns and Debates

Summer has now passed, we are entering the height of campaign season and the conversations around debates have been trending. I find this is a great learning tool to introduce a concept that is being widely discussed. In this particular lesson, students learn about the history of presidential debates and decide if they are an effective way to choose a candidate. It is important to note one of the activities for this lesson is for students to analyze a debate -- this can be a potential upcoming debate or a number of previous presidential debates.

Other Resources

I’d encourage educators to use free resources like, an organization founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and which now includes Justice Sonia Sotomayor on its board. One highlight of its lessons is a collection of games that engage with the political process as they learn the essentials of how the government works. 

Crucial Importance

As Social Studies teachers and educators, we have the duty and honor to teach civic responsibility, something our students will continue to use and be involved in for their rest of their lives. Therefore, I consider this content to be extremely important. We are educating the next generation of leaders, activists, and politicians. There are studies that show that students who learn about civic engagement are more than likely to be more politically engaged throughout their life, increase literacy skills, and even increase community relationships through activities such as volunteer work. As we are in the midst of the election season, there is no better time to teach our students the importance of civic engagement and the history of our political process.

Elroy “EJ” Johnson Social Studies Instructional Lead Teacher Twitter: @ejohnsoniv_

Elroy “EJ” Johnson is a Social Studies Instructional Lead Teacher in Dallas, Texas. EJ started his work in education as a Teach for America corp member in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. EJ has a passion for both media and education and believes media literacy can be a powerful tool to educate the next generation.  He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Journalism through the University of Alabama. Aside from teaching, EJ is passionate about creating and collecting primary resources through his work as an award winning-documentary filmmaker and documentary photographer.

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