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Election Year Social Studies

Updated: Jun 11

How should teachers approach the contentious 2020 election in their classrooms? We developed a few suggestions below and discussed the topic with Dr. Paula McAvoy.

Tip #1: Don’t Avoid It

In an age of polarization, it’s understandable that you might want to avoid talking about politics. Don’t. Instead, if you’re worried about addressing hot button issues, take refuge in the process. Teach about the governing bodies, offices, and powers at the local, state, and national level. Research where these elements are defined and described. Dig in and investigate how people register to vote, where they go to do it, and what they do when they get there. Not only are these areas of investigation relatively free of controversy, but they’ll also provide students with information that will help them be active participants in our democracy.

Tip #2: Don’t Divide Your Students

Skip class debates, mock elections, or other practices that divide students into groups and encourage them to win at the expense of their peers. Remember, despite the partisanship of our current politics, civics shouldn’t be taught as a zero-sum game where there are losers, winners, and little room for compromise. Besides, dividing students in this way often gives the mistaken impression that there are only two sides, two ways of thinking, two choices. The reality is much more complicated.

Tip #3: Don’t Assume You Know Your Students’ Experiences

An election can mean a lot of things depending on your socioeconomic status, background, and circumstances. While issues like immigration, the social safety net, tariffs, or subsidies may seem like abstract policy debates, for some of your students they may directly affect the safety, security, and happiness of the people they love.

Tip #4: Don’t Neglect Other Ways to Participate

Challenge students to discover what happens after elections, how they can make their voices heard, and how they can work directly to improve and empower their communities. Voting is an important right and responsibility, but it’s not the only outlet for civic participation.

One final piece of advice: Be patient and forgiving with students who come in ready to argue and insult. They are probably mimicking what they see and hear every day in the media. Our classrooms can serve as the antidote to that hyperbole and vitriol, laboratories for the thoughtful politics that our country needs to move forward together.

Webinar Summary

During the webinar, we explored the challenges, ideas, and best practices associated with teaching the 2020 Election. We were honored to be joined by Dr. Paula McAvoy and Stefanie Wager. You can find their bios at the end of today's post.

We mentioned a lot of resources during the webinar and promised that we'd share them with you. See below for the list!

Discussion and Collaboration Resources

Instructional Strategies Guide

  • Strategies compiled from panelist Stefanie Wager

  • Matching classrooms of diverse political orientations for discussion

Cult of Pedagogy

  • A list of discussion strategies from Cult of Pedagogy

Making Thinking Visible

  • Visible Thinking is a research-based approach to teaching thinking, begun at Harvard's Project Zero, that develops students' thinking dispositions,

Street Law

  • Deliberations allow teachers to help students cooperatively discuss contested political issues by carefully considering multiple perspectives and searching for consensus.

The Political Classroom

  • Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy argue that schools are, and ought to be, political sites -places that engage students in deliberations about questions that ask, “How should we live together?”

Organizations with Election Resources


  • iCivics works to ensure every student in America receives a quality and engaging civic education and graduates from high school well prepared and enthusiastic for citizenship

Civics Renewal Network

  • Explore thousands of high-quality, no-cost learning materials from our network of partners.

C-SPAN Classroom

Finally, if you were not able to attend the webinar, please view the recording below.

Dr. Paula McAvoy is an assistant professor in the college of education at North Carolina State University. Her research focuses on philosophical and practical questions concerning the relationship between schools and democratic society. Recent publications such as “Should teachers share their political views in the classroom?” and “Polarized Classrooms.”

Stefanie Wager is the President-Elect of the National Council for the Social Studies and serves as a Social studies Consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. She has served as a classroom social studies teacher in the US and Mexico and as the coordinator of a Teaching American History Grant.

Martin Andrews has taught for 20 years at the K-12 and college levels. As a Social Studies and Latin teacher in Ohio, he developed narrative-based middle school Latin and high school World History curricula. Martin co-founded Working Group Theatre, helping to create over 15 original plays to educate children and adults. His work has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Metlife Foundation, and others. Martin joined inquirED in December 2017.


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