Settling Our Differences: Meaningful Social Studies Teaching after a General Election

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Election Related Violence in History
Jelani Cobb in a September, 2020 Atlantic article entitled “Our Long, Forgotten History of Election-Related Violence” wrote of instances of nineteenth century election related violence that may sound strange to contemporary readers in the US.

He points out that on election day of 1856 Charles Brown, a Baltimore resident was casually walking along the street when gunshots rang out and struck him, killing him at the scene. He had been walking near a Twelfth Ward polling place. Democrats that were attempting to enter the polling place had been pushed back by supporters of the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings. For nearly two hours, the Democrats and the Know-Nothings exchanged gunfire right there in the community near the polls. Charles Brown was one of five other people killed that day. The American Party, a group known for its aggressive nativism, frequently used violence to achieve political gains, often targeting immigrant voters. Unfortunately, their violence often got the desired results and in many districts they stopped immigrants from voting altogether.

Throughout the world, the United States is viewed as the most successful and stable democracy. However, there have been many instances of election-related violence throughout American history. For example, an entire city block was burned to the ground in Philadelphia in 1834, when tensions came to a head between the Whig party and the Democrats. In the fall of 1874 in New Orleans, over five thousand men were engaged in a politically motivated brawl in the streets of New Orleans. There was a rift between the supporters of Louisiana’s Republican governor, William Kellogg, and a group of allied Democrats that called themselves the White League. But the most consistent and insidious political violence has been that perpetrated against the Black community in the United States. The history of violence exhibited against African Americans to prevent them from voting or participating in the political process is too varied and extensive to address in this short essay.

Election Related Violence is Nothing New in Our History
Violence surrounding US elections are not by any means an anomaly. Although it is often portrayed as rare, it has been a part of the American political process since the beginning of the republic. Cobb writes that “the general public tends to view such calamities as a static record of the past, but historians tend to look at them the way that meteorologists look at hurricanes: as a predictable outcome when a number of recognizable variables align in familiar ways. In the aftermath of events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, we are in hurricane season.” 

Bringing the Discussion into Our Classroom
How can teachers have a civil and peaceful conversation with students in their social studies classroom about a recent election? How can teachers prevent students from being disillusioned if their candidate loses? How do we prevent conflict as a result of students gloating when their candidate wins? How can we use the general election season to teach students more nuanced details about the democratic process and being involved in civic engagement in a meaningful way? These questions may not always be fully resolved, but for starters, teachers must be reminded that they are educators and not political lobbyists or ambassadors for their party of choice. They are in the classroom to facilitate meaningful learning and to create critical thinkers.

Curbing Partisan Conflict Among Students
Tensions are always high in the days following a presidential election. In recent times, US citizens have been sharply divided along party lines. As a result of this polarization, voter turnout has been at a record high. People on both sides of the aisle feel very, very strongly about their candidate. Most students are introduced to politics by their parents or guardians and often tend to support their candidates or political party. So often tensions play out at schools and on campuses all across the country. The people whose candidate did not win are devastated and those who voted for the winning candidate tend to celebrate and even gloat. It is up to teachers to not only remain bipartisan but also do a good job of bringing both sides together and even develop activities that do not focus on the winner or the loser. In a social studies classroom, teachers can move from partisan conversations to placing recent political events within a historical context. They can find teachable moments related to civic engagement and the democratic process. 

Ideas for Meaningful Teaching after Elections
Educators can teach about the specifics of the electoral college and the role it plays in deciding elections. This can be juxtaposed with the minimal role the popular vote plays in the US. Educators that are teaching government or civics classes can offer some meaningful information and resources that will help students that are of voting age be adequately prepared when they go to the polls. An example of useful civic information would be teachers providing lesson plans surrounding voter registration, the voting process and even providing information about absentee ballots and early voting.

Helping Students Participate in the Local Political Process
Another way to take the focus off of a divided post general election season is to help students understand the importance of local politics and various political races in their hometown. Students should understand that citizens vote for the local sheriff, the school board, city council, the county commissioner, as well as a variety of issues such as school tax levies. Some of the more high profile non-national elections to remind students of include the mayor’s race, voting for the governor or selecting candidates for state legislature races. Important local contests happen every year. When we can help students understand how voting in local elections shape our world they do not put so much stock in whether their presidential candidate won or lost. 

Below are some more lesson ideas on how to use elections to offer meaningful information to students as it relates to the democratic process.   

The Presidential Election: A Lesson in Civics
K-12 Lessons on the Election
Teach and Learn With the 2020 Election
10 Activities That Teach the Presidential Election Process
Election 2016: Lesson Plans and Digital Resources for Educators
PreK-12 Civic Education Resources
Primaries, Voting, and Elections

Discussion Questions
1. In what ways can we curb heightened student emotions in our classroom after an important election?
2. What are lessons or unit plans we can create to help students be prepared when they become of a voting age?
3. In what ways can teachers remain objective during and after a general election to help facilitate a safe and welcoming learning environment?    
4. How can we create lessons that help students have bipartisan conversations that celebrate our similarities and not our differences in the US? 

7 Comments

  1. I think discussing the election process and voter rights is a great way to have an unbiased political conversation with students. I also think students would benefit from gaining a better understanding of the roles and powers of the governmental branches. As a parent and future educator, I was shocked at the number of parents within my local school district that were outraged by the fact that the election was being discussed in school. I think teaching students how to have these discussions in a productive manner is so important.

  2. I really loved this article. Honestly, I’ve never considered that violence due to the election was something that had happened before in the United States. Even though it makes sense, I had no idea about those specific events and the threats towards different groups of people (immigrants and African Americans). However, reading this, it does make perfect sense given the nature of humans.
    Another thing I really enjoyed about this article is how you brought it into the classroom. I liked how you mentioned that elections and political views aren’t something children do not have thoughts and feelings towards; most children share the view of their parents. So when tensions are high throughout the United States, they are in the classroom too. I think because of this factor, we can bring politics and world events into the classroom as you have stated. However it is vital that the teacher remain the teacher and not bias to a particular party. I thought it was really important that you said this and it reminded me that conversations can take place, but make it educational and simple. This also reminded me that in my third grade class (during the election) we voted for the president of our choice in the classroom. I remembered it made me feel like my voice did matter even though I was in elementary school.
    Another thing I loved that you pointed out was helping students have more knowledge about local elections. I think this is so important because I had no clue about anything in my county. I had to do research the night before I voted!

  3. Wow, I was not aware of these two tragic events in our history when it comes to Americans just attempting to vote in US elections. It is appalling that these groups were able to keep immigrants from voting. When I think about African American history with voting rights in this country, I do think of the intimidation tactics used by many groups such as the KKK and laws such as Jim Crowe to intimidate and steer or even kill their vote. Although thankfully, there have not been any tragedies in our modern elections; I think about the counting of votes in the 2020 election when MAGA supporters rushed polling places in attempts to “stop the count.” As absurd as that sounds, I do believe that the president of the United States addressing his supporters and telling them they cannot trust American elections has put a permanent stain on our democratic process. Even when officials have claimed that this has been the most secure turnout; it is a shame for an election that made history of having the highest voter turnout in our nation.

    I think there are so many things we can learn from this election and I do believe more people are educating themselves about politics as they are happening, than ever before. Teachers could use this election to teach about the electoral college, faithless elector is a term that has made news this year. I also think you are right in that lessons in government can include mail-in ballots and early voting, something utilized more than ever this year. I think education for voters on how this process worked, even before the election, would have cleared up a lot of confusion for those who only considered election night results.

    Lastly, I think the importance of this is educating our youth. A majority of them do tend to vote only from the rhetoric of their parents. In my opinion, many of our policies have not been in favor of our youth, especially our poor and minority youth. The youth is the future of our nation, not the older lawmakers who are currently running the show. As sad as it is, but true, tomorrow when we wake up, no matter who is president, our neighborhoods are going to look the same.I feel what is not stressed enough to voters is the importance of our local elections, of our state elections, who we are sending to represent us in the house and senate. Kentucky is a fine example of people who continue to vote against our own interests, but I will not get into that. A majority of our lawmakers and the prestigious professionals in this country do not look like us or even represent the majority of the United States. Many of them come from a background of wealth and haven’t a clue what life is like for the everyday American. It is time for younger people to educate themselves and seek these higher positions. We need more black and brown leaders, educators, doctors, etc.

  4. This is such an important article to read especially at the current time that we are in right now in our country. It is really interesting to read about the history of our elections and see that voter fraud is so prevalent in a lot of elections and we are seen as the most successful democracy. I think it is so important to know that as teachers we are not supposed to present our own views, but present the information on every different stance and have students pick which side they side with. This is so important and will stop different conflicts from happening because we are teaching students to be respectful of all views and allow them to see that while others views are different we can still have civil discourse.

  5. I agree that it is our job as social studies teachers to make sure that our students are able to talk about their political beliefs in a calm manner. Society has become too polarized, because people are unable to communicate. People can no longer compromise and understand the other side of an argument. Democracy is built on compromise and if people can not compromise then the polarization will divide the country and we will fail.

  6. This is a relevant and eye-opening article about the toll elections can have on our emotions and as well as the importance of effective social studies teaching in the classroom. Teachers can curb heightened student emotions in our classrooms after an important election by moving partisan conversations from students to placing recent political events in a historical context as the articles explains. We can use occurring events and relate them to civic engagement and teach students how to handle their emotions during tough times. There are many lessons we can create to help students be prepared when they become of voting age and I am afraid to say I believe many history teachers fail to teach their students important history. One way we can inform our students is by teaching them about the electoral college as well as the democratic process with who has power and who doesn’t when it comes to certain situations.

  7. I had previously learned that voter fraud is not a new revelation in American election history, so it is also interesting to learn that voter violence is not a new phenomenon as well. During such times, it is often hard for people to recognize the humanity in one another which is disheartening in many ways. As an educator, I think it is important to be a neutral voice in the classroom and show students the humanity of both sides to lesson the conflicts between them. As a nation, we should do the same.

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