The Presidential Election: A Lesson in Civics

As a social studies teacher, I’m always excited to teach students about their legal rights, our political system and how they can become engaged citizens. However, that excitement kicks up a notch during a presidential election year because I’m reminded of the importance of teaching students how to become engaged citizens. As a social studies teacher, it’s up to me to set the foundation for my students so they will be able to engage productively.

Exchanging ideas in civics class. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Exchanging ideas in civics class. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Each year around Constitution Day (September 17), the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania releases data showcasing some Americans’ limited understanding of civics and government. Two alarming statistics from their most recent study: three-quarters of respondents could not name all three branches of government, and thirty-one percent of respondents could not name one branch. This data provides a yearly reminder about how important it is for me to arm my students with this knowledge so they can become informed citizens who don’t end up as one of those statistics.

Teaching about civic engagement during an election year is more important than ever. Many social studies teachers have legitimate concerns about teaching the controversial issues that surround presidential elections, out of concern for upsetting parents and administrators. But in my classroom, I believe that if I don’t teach my students how to have civilized political discourse when they are in school, they may grow up without this skill, without an understanding of history and government and without the knowledge they need about their responsibility to be informed citizens. I want my students to take the time to thoughtfully understand the position of others – something that’s not always easy when they watch TV or engage on social media.

Fortunately, I have found that there are great resources to support teachers in educating students about the intricacies of our political system in a non-partisan way. iCivics’ Win the White House game allows students to choose a platform and run a nationwide campaign including fundraising, polling, and planning media appearances. The Civics Renewal Network is dedicated to consolidating access to all kinds of civic education resources for teachers. Project VoteSmart is dedicated to providing non-partisan fact-checking resources about federal and state level government officials.

The 2016 election brings the usual presidential election cycle excitement and our media outlets are energizing that daily. I support a renewed focus in schools on issues and policy stances that could strengthen our students’ political understanding and critical thinking skills. Our students are the next generation of governors, senators, and presidents and I know I will do my best to equip them with the foundational knowledge they’ll need to succeed.

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy; therefore, is education.” It is imperative we provide students with strong and engaging civics curriculum for the future of our democracy.

Erica Schnee is a National Board Certified Teacher and an iCivics Master Teacher and an Assistant Principal at Bozeman High School by day and an AP Government teacher for Montana Digital Academy by night.

3 Comments

  1. I’m a college student pursuing a degree in public policy and this post really resonated with me! In my state, we didn’t even begin our civics education coursework until senior year of high school and by then many students were already 18 and had been eligible to vote for some time. I was fortunate enough to participate in a program called We the People run by the Center for Civic Education that taught me all the fundamentals of government in a really engaging, interactive way. The sources you shared like iCivics and The Civics Renewal Project are great resources for that more hands-on civics education.

    And now more than ever, it’s important to help students cultivate a passion for politics and public policy. As you cited, many American citizens are unable to even name the three branches of government. In my college-level political science class of more than 100 people, when the teacher asked how many people could name their congressional district and congress person, less than 10 people had the ability to do so. In a country where the power rests with the people, it’s imperative that we have a well-educated and engaged electorate.

    As you stated, “in my classroom, I believe that if I don’t teach my students how to have civilized political discourse when they are in school, they may grow up without this skill, without an understanding of history and government and without the knowledge they need about their responsibility to be informed citizens.” It’s statements like these that are so encouraging. Students need a solid understanding of history, government, and the ways in which to execute civil political discourse, and teachers like you are ensuring the future electorate is engaged and excited about politics. Thank you for such an encouraging post!

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