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We are in the final days of the 2016 race to the White House. Teachers and parents alike are wondering how to talk about politics in a civilized kid-friendly manner. How’s a teacher supposed to teach the current election when conversations surrounding the topic are never civil?

Over the weekend headlines were R-rated and seemed like the punch line of a dirty joke. News changes by the minute, and well—we don’t really want to be sending home a vocabulary list of words that have become the talking points for this political season. 

Teachers often feel unprepared to teach controversial issues. And right now we are smack in the final days of pure political controversy.

But educators would be remiss to avoid conversations about our democracy. To put it plainly–we’ve got to teach the next generation to do better. 

In 2010 I co-authored a research-study that investigated the teaching of controversial issues in the classroom. I’ve compiled a list of eight helpful suggestions as you prepare for a political conversation in your classroom or at home.

1). Know that you are not alone in your angst. Most teachers feel unprepared to talk about controversy in the classroom. Teacher training does often not touch this topic.  So feeling a bit squeamish is common. 

2). Stay neutral about your voting record and core beliefs on issues. Think of yourself as an umpire. Your job is to control the tempo and temperature of the classroom. Even if you adamantly feel we should build a wall or close the coalmines you need not voice your opinion. I personally don’t want my child’s beliefs swayed by that of their teacher. Do you?

3). What should you do when students ask you whether you’ll be voting for Trump, Clinton, Johnson, or Stein? After telling them that it is important that you don’t influence their opinion use humor to diffuse the situation. Say, I am going to “vote for Lincoln!”  Then smile and move on.

4). Take a cue from the candidates and spin the story! If you are uncomfortable diving into the present election (and who isn’t?), focus on history and government. Investigate when women received the right to vote. Teach about the Electoral College— students will be fascinated to learn that each states receive so many “votes” and that our democratic voting system is not built on a collective popular vote. Or study the three branches of government

5). Engage students in a meaningful conversation that it is actually A-OK for people to possess a difference of opinions. Contrary to political ads or the opinion of many media commentators, we don’t have to beat each other up or bad mouth those who disagree with our own personal opinion. To illustrate this point take a few polls in the classroom (i.e…favorite color, favorite food, favorite sport). Ask students if we should shame those who voted for yellow, or chicken, or basketball. Now ask students if we should shame those who vote from Clinton or Trump? Allowing and protecting our right to have a difference of opinions is one facet that makes our democracy great. This is called Freedom of Speech and is protected by the First Amendment. Historically, citizens of other countries have been jailed, killed, and banished for expressing their personal opinions. We should recognize that our government protects its citizens from such behavior. 

6). Teach how our government is an institution that abides by the thought that “Government is OF the people, FOR the people, and BY the people”.   This will help students understand the basic concepts of voting, campaigning, having rights and responsibilities, and that government is created for the people, by the people, and of the people will help students acquire knowledge about our system of government.

7). Know it is important to engage in the conversation about government, elections, and current issues with your students. National Council for the Social Studies defines an effective citizen as one who “embraces core democratic values and strives to live by them,”  “has knowledge of our nation’s founding documents, civic institutions, and political processes,” “is aware of issues and events that have an impact on people at local, state, national, and global levels,” and “seeks information from varied sources and perspectives to develop informed opinions and creative solutions.” (National

8). Children and teens are heavily influenced by their parent’s beliefs. Therefore expect most young ones to be heavily biased toward one candidate. These students might repeat points their parents have vocalized. Don’t repeat these statements to people outside your classroom. The discussions that occur in people’s homes should be kept confidential. If something is so absolutely hilarious that you can’t resist repeating—well, use a pseudonym and tell folks it was an off-the-record conversation and you have to keep your source private! Because “kids do say the darndest things!”

I wish you the best of luck as you navigate the days ahead! And if a kid you know does say something hysterical…will you share it in the comment section of this article (just don’t tell us who it is)? Because at this point…we all need something to laugh at! 

Sarah Philpott

Sarah Philpott Ph.D lives in the south east on a sprawling cattle farm where she raises her two mischievous children (with one on the way!) and is farm wife to her high school sweetheart. A former teacher, she now spends this season of her life cleaning peanut butter & jelly off the counter, dreaming of traveling the world, hosting “get-togethers” for her family & friends, and chasing her kids around the farm. Sarah is represented by The Blythe Daniel Literary Agency. You can visit with Sarah at her blog where she writes about cultivating a life of down-home simplicity. She also has a passion for helping women cope with pregnancy loss.

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