George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

The Election and the Educator

During a contentious election season, a teacher's best strategy may be encouraging healthy, informed debate among students while withholding his or her own views.
July 21, 2016
Over 100 United States flags are raised in the air with a handful of other country flags lost in the background.
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Demonstrating Fairness

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's entry into the political fray with her comments about presidential candidate Donald Trump raises the issue of whether a Supreme Court justice should share her opinions about in-progress political campaigns.

The conventional wisdom states that she should refrain from showing her bias, especially given the recent history of the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court made the final call on the outcome in Florida, the deciding state that ushered George W. Bush into the White House over Democratic candidate Al Gore.

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Justice Ginsburg holds a position of great influence and pledges to uphold the Constitution, the law of the land, with a commitment to fairness. Given her comments about Mr. Trump, would she be able to demonstrate fairness if the election decision ended up in the laps of the Supreme Court, as it did in 2000?

The New York Times editorial page posits:

And just imagine if this were 2000 and the resolution of the election depended on a Supreme Court decision. Could anyone now argue with a straight face that Justice Ginsburg's only guide would be the law?

Her comments and positioning related to Mr. Trump prompted me to consider teachers' role with students related to the presidential election in a season of hotly contested viewpoints and high-profile candidates.

Should teachers share their opinions with students?

Strategies for Classroom Discussion

In a recent conversation at my school, a student cautioned me against teachers weighing in too heavily. He told me that a teacher's viewpoint holds great power and influence, and it might potentially undermine students' ability for engaging in dialogue and debate to arrive at their own opinions about candidates, issues, and process. He pointed out that a teacher's opinion, if shared too forcefully, can stifle voices and undermine the objective of education, which is to open and not close minds.

How will schools handle this issue in September as the election heads toward its finale in November? What should be the guide for teachers? In an earlier blog post for Edutopia, I shared several strategies. Here are a few more:

1. Be fair-minded.

As hard as it may be, given the current political climate, show the ability to listen to different viewpoints. This is critical to creating an intellectual climate that honors viewpoint diversity.

2. Build perspective.

Read different news sources from diverse towns and cities to gain a greater understanding of the range of opinions that exist across the country.

3. Challenge assumptions.

If someone makes an objectionable, sweeping generalization, call it into question and demand an investigation into the facts to better understand the complexity of the issue.

4. Remember the big picture.

Keep in mind that the current election year is just a point in time. How might we take a 30,000-foot view of this election in the context of U.S. history and the global political climate?

5. Make connections.

As an example, how does Brexit, Britain's recent decision to withdraw from the European Union, impact and reflect the issues that are surfacing in the U.S. presidential election?

6. Dig into demographics.

Understand how different communities are experiencing the election. How do age and stage reflect voting patterns? What role do race and ethnicity play? How does gender affect what's happening, especially with Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential candidate from a major party?

7. Demonstrate a non-anxious presence.

Conversations can grow heated when politics are involved. Keep calm, and your students will follow your lead.

8. Defer judgment.

Again, during the course of conversations around the election, withhold judgment as you take time to better understand a speaker's viewpoint before responding. Train your students to ask for the information that they'll need to better understand and then respond to the viewpoint being shared.

9. Model restraint.

Acknowledge the challenge of keeping your viewpoints to yourself. Let your students know that you have strong opinions, but that your role as a teacher is facilitating dialogue that will allow them to make informed decisions. Your students will push you because they want to know where you stand. The minute you cave on this, you've closed the door to open dialogue.

10. Embrace the challenge.

This is a great educational moment. Thrive on the difficulty of figuring out ways to frame successful conversations.

11. Don't go it alone.

Collaborate with your colleagues. Connect with other educators in different parts of the country. Bring classes from different communities together for dialogue via Skype or other media.

What election-season strategies are you thinking about for your classroom?

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Critical Thinking
  • Media Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • Social Studies