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? 

15 Comments

  1. I think this article is a great reminder that while tensions are high now, we have historical evidence of past voter suppression and violence that is much worse than what we are currently going through. I agree that most students simply follow how their parents vote since they usually haven’t had much life experience independent and outside the home. I think its important to talk about talking about civic processes before an election, or if students have a question in class during this extended election process. After this current election however I think its important to focus elsewhere in the curriculum to let tensions die down. Even some teachers are struggling being bi-partisan. I think it’s better to discuss these events in historical context and how we have come together as a country in spite of past disputes over elections and policy. Student and their parents mostly understand that teachers are just talking about facts most of the time, but I feel that too many might misinterpret things this close to the election. I think its great that this article reminds us to talk about local elections and resources to engage in local policy. I think students are able to understand local politics more easily as they have a better context. Sadly local newspapers don’t exist for many communities, so increasingly even their parents might not know what local leaders are doing.

  2. Dr. Childs article about meaningful Social Studies teaching after an election is a timely look at some of the factors that play into discussion of current events, especially ones in which both sides are passionate about their candidates or causes. One quote that is very important to remember is, “…teachers must be reminded that they are educators and not political lobbyists or ambassadors for the party of their choice.” As the article also states, as educators we are in the business of developing creative thinkers. If a teacher often expresses their own viewpoints to students, there are a few negative consequences. First, students could get upset, which in turn could lead to upset parents. Second, instead of thinking critically, students may instead just parrot their teacher’s beliefs. In discussing the 2020 election with my class, I did what Dr. Childs recommends in this article- I simply went over the electoral map and explained some of the various components of the map. Students were able to give opinions, but I remained neutral. I think students, when discussing politics in class, should leave with the impression that they have no idea which side their teacher is on. I also agree with the assessment that students need to be engaged and understand the process for local elections as well as national elections. While those races for state congress or local school board might not be as exciting, often times it is those elected officials who really impact our daily lives on a greater scale than the President or a senator.

  3. I really like this article because it discusses different topics related to social studies after a general election. There has been violence after elections at least since 1834 when an entire city block was burned down in Philadelphia. It makes sense that people would be upset after losing the election but, it does not call for violence among the citizens. Bringing peaceful election talk to the classroom is a challenge or teachers. They must not be ambassadors for their own political stances, but facilitators for meaningful conversation to create critical thinkers. This article also talks about helping students participate in the local political process. It also gives ideas and lessons for meaningful teaching after the election. At the end of the article there are resources and discussion questions to further students’ learning.

  4. I agree with the article stating that this is not a new idea for violence during and after elections. I believe everyone was on edge because this was such an important election for our country. It’s disappointing that our nation struggles with the works of democracy and trusting both the electoral college and the popular vote by the US citizens. As an educator, I feel teaching children about voting is important at even the youngest of ages. I didn’t understand how the electoral college worked until I was 19 and voted for the first time. I should have not gone that far in my education without understanding a system that determines our presidents and other political leaders. I plan to show videos, read books, and have discussions with my students about the past/present elections. I will encourage my students to vote for whoever they believe is the best candidate, and I will remind them that they are entitled to their own opinion. But, violence is never the answer whether you agree or disagree with another person.

  5. After reading the article, I completely agree with how to talk about the election and politics in class. I do think that it is important for students to get an unbiased explanation as to what is going on in the world. Most children listen to what their parents say and just go along with that but never end up learning about both sides of politics. At the daycare I work at there is a schoolager who constantly wears a Donald Trump mask, I do not agree with forcing political opinions on children when they are not educated enough to make their own opinion. Which is why it’s another great reason to be unbiased in a classroom and to keep our opinions to ourselves. We are here to educate and not force our beliefs and opinions onto our students.

  6. This was a very interesting read. I did not realize the amount of voter violence that took place in the past and currently. I think it is important as educators to not focus on our own political parties but rather allow students to do exploration on their own through activities that are planned for them in the classroom. It is also important to talk to students about the importance of voting and the electoral college as you mentioned in the article. I really enjoyed looking through the various resources that you posted and plan to use some of them in my future classroom.

  7. I think this article does a great job at pointing out the violence that has, and does, come out during this time of year. It’s gotten to the point where people can’t even have civil conversations about politics without it turning in to a screaming match. A lot of times people are just so close-minded that they can’t have a conversation about a difference of opinions without trying to just shut each other down. I always stay open-minded, and I think that’s an important part of communication. I think we are lucky to be able to have our own opinions and voice those opinions in this country. I think a lot of people take that for granted, and they forget that we are all able to have our own opinions on things. There is no need for violence in situations like this. I think its important as a teacher for you to keep your opinions to yourself and allow students to explore an form their own opinions. I think it’s also important to stress to students that it’s okay to think differently than someone else.

  8. This article was very informative! I didn’t realize how much violence there was relating to elections in the past and how it tied in to what is happening in current times. I agree that there needs to be more open political conversations, but also keeping it civil at the same time. Starting this in the classroom is a great idea. It’s a controlled environment where students can talk about how they’re feeling during/after an election and it also gives teachers a good lesson to educate their students. Doing this could cause less riff in the future and teach people valuable things to put in to practice during election seasons.

  9. Dr. Childs,

    This was an extremely profound and relevant article in terms of the context of our current social and political climate. The discussion of political related violence is an insight that must be recognized. Many people believe that political unrest and violence in America is a rather recent development, but this is simply not the case. Unfortunately, this violence has been present for centuries and it will continue to be present until Americans learn to respect one another and have a civil dialogue.

    With that being said, the implications of classroom instruction become an imperative component of coping with and pivoting from this negative trend in our country. With this violence and tension considered, it is vital that we prepare students in a way that allows them to respectfully and positively engage with one another as it relates to politics. I agree with the point made that teachers should not act as political lobbyists. All too often, teachers allow their political preferences to become visible to their students. As educators, it is essential that these feelings are never displayed. Instead, teachers should facilitate meaningful conversations related to elections and the democratic process. Teachers can even compare the events of the past to the events of the present.

    In conjunction with this, I also agreed with the point that educators should accurately teach the role of the electoral college in presidential elections. Many students become confused or misunderstand the electoral college and its basic processes. By offering students a more comprehensive education surrounding this facet of our democratic process, they will be more prepared to participate in elections as well as engage in civil discourse related to the democratic process.

    Thanks,
    Evan

  10. I liked reading this article. I think it accurately portrays the political climate in this country as well as shows that not all hope is lost. I really like what you say about teaching the next generation the importance of voting. Getting them interested in the local elections where they can easily see real change come from voting.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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