About this Lesson
The 2020 presidential election is weeks away, and the complex social and political context of the election – including the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising, the impact of climate change, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – offers us and our students a profound civic lesson.
Students are aware that politics affect their everyday lives. They want to be part of the conversation, to have a voice. Students might be too young to vote, but youth voices are critical around national issues like climate change, immigration, Black Lives Matter, and the response to the pandemic.
This lesson, which can take place in a virtual or physical classroom, gives students a chance to reflect on the issues they care about in the 2020 presidential election, consider their sources of information about those issues, and discuss polarization and the need to be able to talk with those we disagree with. It is a two-day activity: In day one, students share their thoughts about the election and decide on an issue that is important to them. In day two, having researched that issue, students make a short presentation to the class on the issue.
NOTE: Some of your students may be eligible to vote. In the U.S., citizens who are 18 at the time of the election can vote, if they are registered. In most states, young people who will be 18 by Election Day (November 3, 2020) can pre-register to vote. Registration rules vary by state, but often registration must take place several weeks before the election.
Day 1: Setting the Groundwork
Welcome students into the space, beginning with a check-in. You might ask students to share briefly what is most on their minds right now. Or, ask students to share one thing that is “new and good” that has happened in their lives recently – even if it’s a small thing.
Next, tell students that in this activity, we’ll be learning and talking about issues that are important to us in the 2020 election. In the current climate, it is challenging to have political conversations without it turning into an argument or a conflict. This activity will give us a chance to explore issues and have a dialogue – to listen, learn, and share, rather than to debate.
Create or review guidelines for the discussion
If you already have community guidelines, review them with students. If you don’t, work with students to come up with guidelines:
- Ask students what they need in order to have a respectful and productive conversation.
- How do they want to show up, and how do they want others to show up?
- Create a list that might include such items as listen when others are speaking, no putdowns, be caring even when you disagree, and confidentiality.
Invite students to take a moment to explore how we are feeling individual and collectively about the election. Ask students:
- What is one word about how you are feeling about 2020 presidential election?
Record students’ responses in the chatbox or whiteboard.
Without calling attention to any specific student’s perspective, ask for any general observations students want to make about the feeling words that were shared during the brainstorm:
- Where do most of our feelings lie today?
- How does the group as a whole seem to be feeling about the election?
Then ask students:
- When strong feelings come up about the election, what are some things you can do to make yourself feel better?
With the 2020 presidential election just weeks away, ask students:
- Why is it critical for young people to have a voice in the political process, even if you might be too young to vote?
Have a couple of students share out their thoughts about why it is critical for young people to have a voice in the political process.
Then ask the students how young people are voicing their joy, fears, love, solidarity, frustration, and/or anger leading up to the presidential election.
If the students have difficult time coming up with responses, mention young peoples’ leadership in the Black Lives Matter Movement, gun violence, or climate change movement.
What Do You Care About?
Now is an opportunity for students to make their voice heard about a specific issue that concerns them. Ask students:
- When you reflect on the presidential election, what issues do you care the most about?
- What issues and policies affect your life?
Brainstorm a list of issues that students are concerned about leading up to 2020 presidential election.
Responses might include such issues as voting rights, climate change, Black Lives Matter, the response to the pandemic, immigration, healthcare, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, or another issue.
Record the list in the chatbox or the board.
Ask students to review the list and choose a particular issue that they care about. Tell them that they will be researching this issue and creating a short presentation about it for your next session together. (Make sure to allow adequate time and support for the students to conduct research and prepare their presentation for your next class.)
To help students decide on an issue, ask them to reflect on these questions:
- Why do you care about this specific issue?
- How have your experiences shaped your perspective on this issue?
- What questions do you have about this issue?
Once students have decided on an issue, explain their assignment and the plan for the next session of class:
- For our next session, everyone will prepare a short presentation about an issue of their choice to share with the class. It could be a short selfie video, poetry, hip hop, or poster board presentation that will help classmates understand more about this issue and why it matters to you.
- The presentation should be under 2 minutes.
- To prepare for the presentation, students should read, watch, and collect pieces from various news sources. As they research an issue, they should look at news sources that have multiple political perspectives.
- Ask students to keep a list of their sources, since we’ll be discussing this question of sources in our next class.
Consider our Sources
To make sure that your students are using reliable news sources, ask them:
- Where do you receive your news? Is it from social media, or other sources?
- Do you read the headlines, or entire article or source?
- Do you consider the source of information and whether it is reliable?
- With so much information (and misinformation) circulating about the election, how do we know if the news we are reading is reliable, or not?
For the research students will do, they should be sure to look at multiple political perspectives and read a variety of news sources to try and disguise between what is “fake news” sources and what are reliable news sources. Have a discussion with them about what is considered a reliable source. (See these tips for determining the reliability of sources.)
Below are some articles about specific issues that young people are involved in that are relevant to the presidential election, which some students might use as a starting point.
Youth Voice Articles
- Black Lives Matter: These Teen Girls are Fighting for a More Just Future: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/style/teen-girls-black-lives-matter-activism.html
- Climate Change: The Teenager at the End of the World: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/21/magazine/teenage-activist-climate-change.html
- Hunger: Young People are Fighting Hunger and Finding Purpose: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/01/well/family/kids-food-hunger-volunteering.html
Health Care: U.S. Elections 2020 Understanding What’s At Stake For Health Care NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/29/800652075/u-s-elections-2020-understanding-whats-at-stake-for-health-care
Ask students to share what issue they are going to research and why do they care about that specific issue.
Day 2: Student Presentations and Discussion
Welcome students into the space, beginning with a check in.
Before we begin the presentations, invite students to consider the question of political polarization in our society today.
- What is “polarization”?
- What is “political polarization”?
According to the Pew Research Center:
“Political polarization – the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of American politics today, and one the Pew Research Center has documented for many years.”
(If students are interested in this question of polarization, suggest that they research it. They might begin with this report by the Pew Research Center on Political Divides, Conspiracy Theories and Divergent News Sources Heading Into 2020 Election.)
As the country has become increasingly polarized, it has affected how we interact with each other. Ask students to share their thoughts on this by asking:
- How does this political polarization affect the United States?
- What feelings or thoughts come up for you when someone has a different opinion?
- How has this political polarization impacted how we listen, or our capacity to respect different perspectives?
Tell students that during this lesson, we want to work towards defying the political landscape and respectfully listening to different perspectives.
Review the guidelines for discussion that the class created.
Explain that today, everyone will be presenting on specific issues around the presidential election. First, we will listen closely to each person’s presentation, without interrupting. Then we will transition to processing our thoughts about what we’ve shared with each other.
Before you begin, invite students to share their reflections on how it was to research their issue:
- What was it like to research your issue?
- What sources did you use?
- Was it hard to find reliable sources? Why or why not?
Presentations and Discussion
Give every student a chance to make their presentation. Explain that each student has up to two minutes.
During each of these presentations, we’ll listen without interruption. After the presentations are done, we’ll have the opportunity to have a dialogue and conversation.
Once all the presentations have been made, ask some or all of the following processing questions:
- How did it feel to listen to all of the different issues associated with the election?
- What surprised you?
- What stood out for you?
- How do the different issues discussed connect to each another?
- How did it feel to listen to perspectives that you agree with? Please describe: Was it easy or challenging?
- How did it feel to listen to perspectives that you disagree with? Please describe: Was it easy or difficult?
- Why is it important to be able to have conversations about the presidential election or issues you care about?
- What steps can you take to respectfully listen to people with different perspectives (especially those that you disagree with)?
Ask each student to respond to the following questions:
- What is one hope that you have about the issue that you presented on?
- What is one action that you will take to contribute to making that hope a reality?
Resources for Additional Exploration
11 Ways to Engage Students From Now Until November, from the New York Times:
Short videos by teen reporters on how they feel about voting and elections, from PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs:
How Lack of Voting Information Could Hamper Youth Turnout. This Gallup article includes polling on issues that young people are concerned about:
Pew Research Center on Political Divides, Conspiracy Theories and Divergent News Sources Heading Into 2020 Election: