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In years past, teaching about a presidential election meant teaching about the Electoral College, just making it a little more interesting. In 2020, teaching about the presidential election feels more like teaching about the Second Amendment or the abortion rights debate. 

It’s a contentious subject, and across the country, some districts are forbidding their teachers from broaching this election, some teachers are choosing on their own not to teach it, and, in some cases, students are being told it’s too polarizing to discuss in the classroom. Schools are afraid of dividing and triggering their students amid the fraught, frenzied, hyperpartisan, superpolarized and downright ugly political culture of our country right now. 

I understand — but urge these schools to reconsider. They must figure out a way to teach this election, rather than limiting their students’ education. 

It’s time we looked at the 2020 presidential race not as one that is too contentious to touch, but rather as an exercise in how to teach controversial issues. Because this is a teachable moment.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Slightly higher reading scores when students delve into social studies

Three states — Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts — have in recent years revamped their social studies and civic education standards and have created legislation to implement modern civic education. Discussion of controversial topics is now a core subject in their efforts, along with teaching media literacy and giving students the opportunity to engage in hands-on civic engagement projects.

It’s time we looked at the 2020 presidential race not as one that is too contentious to touch, but rather as an exercise in how to teach controversial issues.

That’s because learning how to discuss the issues that divide us is one of the most important pedagogies for fostering critical thinking and developing informed and thoughtful citizens. These skills and dispositions are essential to the health of our constitutional democracy.  

Rather than avoiding this election, teachers can instead use some of the best practices that we have found effective for teaching controversy:

  • Start by communicating with the administration and parents. If you are a teacher, tell them you plan to teach the election, why you think it’s important and how you plan to teach it. 
  • Avoid making assumptions that students know a lot about the election. They most likely know the two major candidates and have a favorite, but their knowledge may end there. So before potentially discussing the controversy around this election, spend some time teaching the facts of this election.
  • Vocabulary can be divisive, so give some thought to class norms for talking about the parties and candidates. For example, say “the Republican Party” and “the Democratic Party,” not “the Republicans” or “the Democrats.” Refer to the candidates by their formal titles, President Trump and former Vice President Biden.
  • Make sure students know that opinions are welcome, but have them agree to never question or attack others for their views. iCivics’ free videos and guides on teaching controversial topics will help you build a safe and respectful learning environment.
  • Spend some time on news literacy and Civic Online Reasoning. Instead of immediately focusing on the content of articles, videos, memes and other information platforms, explore how to investigate the source and then how to verify its claims. You can start with iCivics’ NewsFeed Defenders game before exploring our News Literacy Unit or our Mini Media Literacy Library.

But above all, it’s important that districts give teachers support as they wade into the murky waters of this election. 

Of those we have heard from who have opted out of this election in the classroom, the overwhelming majority say they are doing so because they don’t have enough support. If teachers perceive strong support, they are significantly more likely to provide an open climate for discussion in class and to prefer more deliberative forms of discussion. 

And yet, research from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) in 2012 showed that while 90% of social studies teachers believed their principals would support their decision to teach about an election,  only 46% of social studies teachers felt their principals would strongly support their doing so; 38% believed their districts would strongly support it; and 28% believed parents would strongly support it. (And this election is far more polarizing than the one in 2012.)  

That simply must change. This presidential election belongs in schools. Students must be taught to deliberate about their political differences. Teachers must be supported in this work. 

Emma Humphries is the chief education officer at iCivics and the deputy director of CivXNow. Check out iCivics’ Election Headquarters: https://www.icivics.org/election.

This story about teaching the 2020 election was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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