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How to talk to kids about Election 2020

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    Election 2020:  Classroom and family discussions during a contentious election year can be difficult, but all students should have a safe space to develop trust, practice respectful dialogue and learn how to engage in the democratic process.  Courtesy photo
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With Election Day less than a week away, we asked Esther Kim, assistant professor of social studies, to share some strategies, tips and resources for educators and parents navigating conversations with children and young adults. 

This story is part of W&M News' Faculty on Topic series – Ed.

As we near Election Day during a particularly tense election year, what are some of the challenges that educators will encounter in the classroom? How can teachers leverage these discussions as teaching moments?

The challenges that educators face will vary by context, but perhaps something everyone will struggle with this year is the difficulty of building a strong classroom community during remote teaching. Student interactions with each other are so minimal with the restrictions of online learning and without more opportunities to know each other better, to develop trust, and to practice respectful dialogue, discussions during a contentious election year can be particularly difficult.

Esther Kim, Assistant Professor of Social Studies EducationAlso challenging is that political language can sometimes be used to mask words that harm others, sometimes unknowingly. In other cases, some have become emboldened by the particularly violent language in our politics today. Without a strong classroom community in which students know each other, and in which the teacher knows their students, discussions about current events may become deeply personal attacks.

For these discussions to become teaching moments, teachers must first be intentional about creating an environment (even on Zoom) that prioritizes trusting relationships, accountability, and respect. There also needs to be the understanding that for some students, the issues that have come to the forefront directly involve their identities. For these students, they may need to pull back from these discussions for their own well-being. 

What are some of the ways we can help young children understand and respect differing points of view? Older children and teens?

Rudine Sims Bishop refers to books as "mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors" for their abilities not only to reflect our own experiences, but to give us glimpses into those of others.

While we need to pay careful attention to whose stories are told and who is telling those stories, authors and educators have curated lists of excellent children's books, including We Need Diverse Books and the Cooperative Children's Book Center of UW Madison, to name a few. Making sure that young children have access to books that not only reflect themselves, but can show them a diversity of perspectives, even within the same community, is a wonderful way to nurture respect for differing points of view.

For older children and teens, one way we can help them understand and respect different points of view is by ensuring that many perspectives, especially those that have been erased historically, make up the core of their social studies classes. Even when they are too young to vote, children and teens are still an important and active part of our democratic society. So not only do we teach them the ideals of a democracy, but the historical and current ways that many communities in our country and world are not allowed basic human rights. And we do this so that we can work collectively towards transforming our neighborhoods, our country, and our world for the better.

We may never agree on one way this can be done, but as teachers and families, we can encourage a respect for differing views, and especially for the histories and the lives of the people these views are coming from.  

How can families frame discussions about the election around the dinner table? What are some good conversation-starters?

Instead of framing discussions around politicians and political parties, it might be useful to start the conversation around our values and definitions. As examples: 

  • What or who do we care about the most when we make our political decisions? Ourselves? Our families? Our neighbors? And who ends up being left out? 
  • What does our answer mean for the environment, for schools, for future generations? 
  • What is a democracy and do we see these characteristics in our own society? 
  • What issue does each person care about the most and why? 
What are some strategies to help young people understand the role of the media in an election, and to begin to navigate the complicated landscape of social media, “fake news” and diverse news sources?

Critical media literacy is such an important topic these days. Although not perfect, using a resource such as a media bias chart is a good start. Teaching Tolerance also has some great resources on digital literacy including videos and lesson plans that not only address real instances of, for example "fake news," but also very clearly explain why such phenomena happen and what we can do to avoid falling into those traps. 

Once the election results are in, there will be winners and losers. How do we handle that with kids?

As teachers, if there is something we can learn from the last election, it is that there were and are heavy real-life consequences for students and their families based on who wins. These consequences have a huge impact on whether or not our students feel welcomed in our classrooms and are able to learn effectively.

The way we handle the days after the election are critical in making sure that any trust we have built with our students is not broken. In addition to respecting student opinions and setting the expectations for students to respect each other, I would also pay particular attention to kids from the most targeted and vulnerable communities. When I step into my classroom after the election, it's no longer about partisan politics, but how I can best care for all my students. 

What’s the most important thing we want young people to take away from this election and how do we keep the focus on that?

I think the most important thing young people can take away from this election is an understanding of what they want our government and country to look like. So many of the injustices and inequities of ability, age, class, gender, and race, even within the act of voting, have become highlighted in our current context, and will continue to affect our young people as they become adults.

Perhaps, with a better understanding of what is actually happening versus what they want to see happen, young people can take actions whether it be voting when eligible, contacting representatives, educating ourselves and others, joining and working with organizations that promote greater justice and equity in our political system, etc. 

What are your favorite resources and websites to help educators and families discuss this topic?