Six Ways to Help Your Students Make Sense of a Divisive Election
On the morning after the election, I joined a high school history class that was meeting virtually on Zoom. After a few minutes of quiet journal reflection, the teacher asked students to share any questions or reflections they had about the election. Responses started to pop up in the chat:
- “What I feel right now is a lot of anxiety.”
- “I heard that Trump said to stop counting votes. Can he do that? That seems really bad!!”
- “When are we going to know who our next president is?”
Even now that major news outlets are saying Mr. Biden has won, we are facing a period of continued uncertainty and potential unrest, as misinformation about the election spreads and ballot counting (or recounting) continues in several states. Your students are likely feeling a range of emotions about the election and may also need help finding accurate information, placing the election into a broader historical context, and finding productive ways to engage in politics.
Here are six tips that can help you discuss the election with your students. If you are a parent, you can also use many of these strategies to help you plan a conversation about the election with your kids.
1. Start with yourself
In 2016, I taught high school history at an international school in Lebanon. Because of the time difference, I went to bed on election night before many of the results were announced. I woke up the next morning to the shocking news that Donald Trump had won, despite all the predictions.
I rushed through the school day without time to reflect, feeling upset and unprepared to answer students’ questions or open up a discussion about the election. Sometimes as educators, we have to hold conversations about current events without much time to prepare, but conversations with students are usually most productive when we have had the opportunity to process our own emotions and create a plan to address students’ needs and questions.
Before initiating a conversation with your students about the election, take time to reflect on your own identity, political opinions, and emotional reaction to the election. You may or may not choose to disclose information about your political affiliations with your students, but no matter what, you should make a plan for how you can create a reflective and inclusive space for your students. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How do I feel about the results of this election? How is this election affecting me and the people I care about?
- How might my emotional response to the election be similar to or different from my students’ emotional responses?
- Could my emotional response make it challenging to facilitate a reflective conversation?
- How can I respect the perspectives my students bring to the conversation?
2. Co-create class norms
In his book, Not Light But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, educator Matthew Kay writes: “In order to nurture hard conversations . . . we must commit to building conversational safe spaces, not merely declaring them.” One tool that can help to build the community and trust students need in order to engage in meaningful conversations is a class contract.
Begin your conversation about the election by creating a class contract, or if your class already has a contract, invite your students to add to or modify it to support this conversation using the following questions to prompt students’ thinking:
- What would a meaningful conversation about the election look like, sound like, and feel like?
- Which norms in our class contract are most important for guiding a meaningful conversation about the election and why?
- Are there any new norms we need to add?
3. Share accurate information and media literacy strategies
Misinformation about ballot counting and voter fraud has been circulating since the election, and President Trump has made false claims about the legitimacy of the election. False information about the election threatens to undermine people’s trust in our democratic systems, and it is important that students know how to evaluate the reliability of the information they read or see.
If you share one or more articles from trusted news outlets that explain what we know about the election, that will hopefully help dispel any misconceptions. It might also encourage them to ask questions. Helpful sources of information on the election include:
You can also help your students learn how to find accurate information on their own. Share a media bias chart with your students—such as AllSides’ Media Bias Chart or Ad Fontes Media’s Interactive Media Bias Chart 5.0—and ask them to evaluate the perspectives of the news sources they read or watch.
The News Literacy Projects resource “How to know what to trust” provides students with steps they can follow to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources they come across online. You can put these questions to your students:
- How could seeing or reading misinformation about the election make people less likely to trust the results of the election?
- What impact could it have if people lose trust in our government or elections?
- What steps can you take to make sure the news you read, watch, or share is accurate?
4. Provide space to process emotions
Research into social and emotional learning shows that students learn best when their head, heart, and conscience are all engaged, and so is it important to give students time to process their emotional reactions to news about the election. These strategies may be useful for helping students reflect on their emotional reactions to the election:
- Journaling: This teaching strategy can help students process their thoughts, feelings, and uncertainties. Ask your students to reflect on their emotions and reactions to the election in a journal using an open-ended prompt such as: How do you feel about the election and what is happening in the aftermath?
- Color, Symbol, Image: This one invites students to reflect on ideas in nonverbal ways and encourages them to think metaphorically. Ask students to choose a color, a symbol, and an image that represents the election to them. They can then create an illustration that includes these three elements.
- Graffiti Board: This strategy gives students a space to process their reactions to a topic and read their classmates’ responses. Create a space (such as a whiteboard if you are teaching in person or a shared document if you are teaching remotely), and ask students to post any questions or reactions they have to the election on the space. Then, read through students’ responses and discuss any questions or themes that were raised.
If any student seems particularly distressed or anxious about the election, follow up with them one-on-one or refer them to wellness staff at your school.
5. Place events into historical context
This election is not the first time that the United States has experienced a contentious election or political polarization. Students may find it helpful to learn about other tumultuous periods in our history in order to gain a deeper understanding of both the strengths and flaws in American democracy.
To give your students an overview of contentious elections in U.S. history, share the Time Magazine article, “Not Every U.S. Presidential Race Has Been Decided on Election Day.” (For a perspective from another student, here’s a very brief column on this topic for the Berkeley High School student newspaper.) For a more in-depth examination of the history of voting rights and electoral systems in the United States, share the three-part podcast series, (mis)Representative Democracy, from NPR’s Throughline.
6. Focus on issues and find ways to act
According to the Time article, “You Asked: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?”:
More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue, or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.
Many people engage with the news in order to feel engaged in politics, but the most effective way to make a difference in our communities is to participate locally and directly, rather than constantly following national news. While it is important to stay informed about national politics, the presidential election is not the only election that matters. Local politics directly impact our lives—and are often less polarizing and more accessible.
Encourage your students to brainstorm issues that matter to them, research local organizations or political leaders who are taking action on those issues, and find ways to get involved. Ask your students:
- What are the issues you care most about? What are the problems that you see in your community?
- Who in your local government has the power to create policy on this issue?
- What organizations or local politicians are organizing around this issue? How can you get involved?
For ideas about how you can guide your students to engage in local activism, read the New York Times article, “Ideas for Student Civic Action in a Time of Social Uncertainty.”