Staying civil in the election year Social Studies class

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Or... how do you keep the kids from acting like adults?

Political discussions at the office are always fraught with danger, doubly so in an election year. But office dynamics can pale compared to those of the classroom. Youthful emotion, combined with bad information and a lack of understanding, can create a toxic brew. And yet the classroom is precisely where political discussions need to happen. The challenge for teachers, and in particular social studies teachers, is to build a climate that fosters both learning and respect. And here, standards-based digital resources can play a key role.

Civil discourse is difficult in politics–you may have noticed over the past decade or so–but it is not impossible. And fostering civil discourse is the first task for any teacher willing to enter this potentially fetid pond. Teachers must first establish good classroom rules about respecting others' opinions and listening. But a good teacher goes further, because political study in the classroom, unlike actual politics, thrives on facts rather than opinions.

Two main elements make up the study of any election, and in particular a presidential election–the issues and the campaign itself. Let's look at how digital resources can help with both of these.

The civics curriculum targets key election issues: political parties, taxes, government spending, foreign relations, immigration, and so on.  SAS® Curriculum Pathways® provides detailed, interactive lessons related to all these topics.

For example, the Interactive Tool Income Taxes and Fairness examines the tax system and the comparative advantages and disadvantages of progressive, proportional, and regressive taxation. Similarly, in the Interactive Tool Free Trade and the American Economy, students learn about the North American Free Trade Agreement and the potential advantages and disadvantages of globalization. With The War Powers Act Interactive Tool, students delve into the relative authority of the president and the congress related to the use of military force. Investigations into these and many other topics in SAS Curriculum Pathways provide students with the foundation to better understand and evaluate the positions and statements of political candidates.

Of course the real substance of any election is the campaign itself. This is also where hostile emotion and inflamed rhetoric can get the best of students. Again, SAS Curriculum Pathways has a wealth of lessons that can help a teacher to guide and shape discussion with facts and analysis, rather than raw emotion.

Political-polling data is often at the heart of daily election coverage. SAS Curriculum Pathways has two lessons that help students understand polls, one from mathematics and one from social studies. The mathematics Inquiry, Sampling Methods and Bias, examines polling methods and the importance of selecting a random sample in order to derive unbiased results. In the Web Lesson Margin of Error: Polls and Public Opinion social studies students learn how to evaluate the validity of polls.

SAS Curriculum Pathways resources also examine the election process itself, such as the role of political parties and the Electoral College. In Referendum, Recall, and Initiative, students study how these Progressive Era political reforms came about and how they influence elections today.

Building a firm understanding of the issues, along with the election process itself, provides students with the knowledge and vocabulary to better engage in a civil examination of an election campaign. Combined with a teacher-directed process that fosters mutual respect and open discussion, students can move beyond the rhetoric–and leave the nasty arguments to the adults.

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About Author

Ralph Moore

Ralph Moore coordinates and conducts professional development for Curriculum Pathways. He works with schools and organizations around the country and has presented at conferences for organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. A former army officer and social studies teacher, he spent 10 years on the Curriculum Pathways humanities team creating new digital curriculum products.

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