The “debates” have started. Early voting is underway. The official “Election Day” is a month away. Pablo Muriel, a teacher at Alfred E. Smith High School in the Bronx, and I recommend four classroom alternatives that engage secondary school students in understanding issues but also prepares them for participation in the 2020 and future elections as civic activists as mandated in a number of state social studies standards. We label these approaches (1) Policy Wonks; (2) Campaign Fact-Checkers; (3) Democratic Dialogue, and (4) Civic Activists. This post is based on an excerpt from our book Supporting Civics Education with Student Activism: Citizens for a Democratic Society (Routledge, 2020).
(1) Policy Wonks: In this approach social studies lessons focus on specific issues, rather than on candidates. Students research and define positions on immigration, climate change, gun control, economic growth, free speech and social media, democratic values, health care, foreign involvement, and Presidential leadership. They can send their recommendations to candidates, promote their ideas in public forums, and use their research to evaluate candidates.
(2) Campaign Fact-Checkers: This approach is especially important as students evaluate candidate claims in the 2020 election campaign and draw conclusions and make recommendations about which candidate to support. Important websites that do fact-checking include FactCheck.org, Fact Checker (Washington Post), and Politifact.com. Students can also conduct textual analysis of testimony and documents, including transcripts of the phone calls. They can find the text of bills and voting records on GovTrack.us. Based on these investigations students can turn to an examination of the Constitution and legal precedents and make judgments based on their investigations. Is President Trump’s decision not to make some documents available and his order to members of the Executive branch not to testify a defense of Presidential pejoratives and the independence of the Executive branch or obstruction of justice by a legitimate and constitutional Congressional inquiry? If President Trump did use the Office of the President to solicit support from Ukraine to further his 2020 reelection campaign, did that in itself constitute an impeachable offense and grounds to remove the President from office?
(3) Democratic Dialogues: In a democratic dialogue the goal is to explore issues from different perspectives in a respectful discussion where views are based on evidence. Possible dialogue topics for the 2020 election cycle include: The United States needs to strengthen its borders and prevent undocumented immigration; The United States must guarantee health care for all Americans; Because President Trump has performed poorly on a number of fronts, the United States needs to elect a different president in 2020. Students sign up for one of a range of positions: Strongly agree, tend to agree, not sure, tend to disagree, or strongly disagree. Teams prepare statements and alternate presenting their positions on an issue or a candidate. After all teams present, the teams huddle to prepare responses, share their responses, and then huddle again to write a summary statement. After the summary statements are presented, the class circles up and discusses what they learned from people they initially disagreed with.
(4) Civic Activists: The National Council for the Social Studies College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework and national Common Core Standards specifically call on teachers and students to collaboratively “Analyze evidence in terms of content, authorship, point of view, bias, purpose, format, and audience.” In addition, students are supposed to learn to “Compare the points of view of two or more authors in their treatments of the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.” As part of this process, students are expected to “Demonstrate respect for the rights of others in discussions and classroom debates; respectfully disagree with other viewpoints and provide evidence for a counter-argument”; “Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, and presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed; “Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions”; and “Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.”
As students develop their views through research and discussion, they are encouraged to act on their understandings. New York State and the NCSS 3C Framework specifically endorse student activism through voting, volunteering, and “joining with others to improve society.” Some projects students can create as they engage in any of these approaches include rapping about a candidate or issue, making a sixty-second infomercial, or producing memes, t-shirts, letters to the editor of local newspapers, blogs, and tweets.
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