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? 

1 Comment

  1. I don’t think its great to use force in order to gain politically. Especially in support of a democracy, which supports individuality of the people. I like tat the article offers ways to teach children how to handle political views without violence. I also like that this article shows how to get students out into the community and involved in voting. When I was in high school, my government teacher actually got our entire class out and helping pass out signs, so that we could understand what we agreed with and how to get involved in politics.

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