Research News

Conference gives teachers tools to talk about politics in the classroom

October 18, 2016

As the race for the White House hits the homestretch, educators in the classroom have an excellent opportunity to help students develop a better understanding of American politics, and to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

Due to the polarized nature of politics in the United States, however, not everyone feels comfortable discussing the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or teaching about hot-button policy issues.

But simply steering clear of such controversy isn’t the answer, says UW-Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess.

Teaching about the Elections
School of Education Dean Diana Hess (left-to-right),
UW-Madison's Gloria Ladson-Billings and Tufts University's
Peter Levine take part in a keynote panel discussion at the
"Teaching about the 2016 Elections" conference Sept. 24
at Grainger Hall. (Photo: Jim Escalante)
“Teaching about politics in the classroom is not something that should be seen as an elective or as optional – this is important,” says Hess, who has spent much of her career researching the impact of school-based civic education programs and how students experience and learn from discussions of highly controversial political issues.

“Many issues in politics today will directly affect young people, and some high school seniors will be eligible to vote in November," says Hess. "Helping students develop their ability to deliberate political questions, to understand other people’s perspectives and to become engaged and knowledgeable citizens is an essential component of our democracy.”

Though talking about emotionally charged topics in the run-up to the November election can be tricky business, UW-Madison’s School of Education hosted a conference Sept. 24 that was designed to give educators the tools, resources and confidence they’d need to teach about electoral politics in a way that is engaging but respectful to differing points of view. Titled, “Teaching About the 2016 Elections: Preparing Students for Political Engagement,” the daylong event at Grainger Hall was attended by about 250 people.

“Teaching about an election is an important way to help the next generation become active and responsible citizens,” says Peter Levine, one of the conference’s keynote speakers. Levine is the associate dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. He also is the director of CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Most who took part in this event were classroom teachers at the K-12 level from across Wisconsin, but college professors from on and off campus, graduate students and UW-Madison teacher education students also attended. Participants learned about important election-related issues and were shown how to draw upon the best and most current information. They also received training in effective learning strategies and were introduced to valuable resources, such as national civic education programs and their highly regarded curricula.

Teaching about the Election
Educators at the conference could chose from a range of
break-out sessions to attend. (Photo: Jim Escalante)
"We wanted the conference to give teachers the confidence to talk about the election,” says UW-Madison's Paula McAvoy, the program director with the Center for Ethics and Education. “To that end, we invited presenters that would provide teachers with the most up-to-date information and a variety of effective classroom strategies.”

“I thought this was a tremendously important and useful conference, especially for this difficult campaign season,” says Carla Geovanis, an instructor of Advanced Placement U.S. Government, and U.S. History 9 Honors at Madison West High School. “The emphasis throughout was on helping students to focus on issues rather than personalities or rhetoric.” 

Amy Piaskowski, an English as a second language (ESL) and history teacher at Madison East High School, adds that before going to the conference she was “worried about how to teach about the election, since the country is so polarized and the rhetoric is so personal and inflammatory.”

The first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump was held on Sept. 26, just two days after the conference. Yet Piaskowski says she felt comfortable leading a classroom discussion about the debate.

“The conference gave me some concrete ideas about how to teach about the issues instead of the candidates,” says Piaskowski.

Teaching about politics
"Teaching about the 2016 Elections" brought about 250
people to Grainger Hall on Sept. 24. (Photo: Jim Escalante)
Educators taking part in the conference could pick from a range of breakout sessions and go to the events that were most relevant to their teaching. All sessions were designed to be interactive and focused on issues related to the current election. The breakout sessions available fell into three main categories:

• Pedagogical strategies, to teach participants how to use particular discussion approaches or other interactive activities in the classroom. Some sessions were most appropriate for elementary teachers, while others focused on activities for middle and high school teachers.

• Issue forums educated teachers about some of the most important issues facing the U.S. and Wisconsin, such as immigration and voter ID laws. UW-Madison faculty members with content expertise related to a particular issue led these events. In one session, David Canon, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, led a discussion about polarization in American politics.

• Featured curricula sessions were led by some of most highly regarded civic education organizations around the country. Presenting organizations included icivics, Mikva Challenge, the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and the Close Up Foundation.

“The conference was an outstanding professional development opportunity for social studies educators,” says Professor James M. M. Hartwick, the Secondary Social Studies Program Coordinator at UW-Whitewater. “In this time of hyper-political partisanship by some and political disengagement by others, it is more important than ever for social studies educators to be prepared to handle the challenges involved in teaching about the many controversial issues inherent to the coming election. These educators must not recoil from the controversy, but instead help students to wisely discern and calmly discuss their views.”

Li-Ching Ho
UW-Madison's Li-Ching Ho leads a breakout session titled,
"Electoral Manipulation: International Perspectives," during
the conference Sept. 24. (Photo: Jim Escalante)
This conference was funded by the generosity of School of Education alumna Mary Hopkins Gibb and her husband, and the Gibb Democracy Education Fund. Additional support was provided by the Center for Ethics and Education, and Wisconsin Public Television.

“This conference was a wonderful example of how support of the School of Education allows us to offer programs for teachers and others that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” says Hess, who holds the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education.

When asked why teaching about the elections in schools is so important, Hess explained how research has shown that the more students know about elections and political issues, the more likely they are to be engaged, which is vitally important to a healthy democracy.

Hess adds that while schools aren’t the only place students can learn about elections, she believes they are an ideal space for a couple reasons.

“In schools, people are likely to hear and learn about multiple and competing ideas,” says Hess, who started her career as a high school social studies teacher in Illinois. “In addition, educators have access to quality curriculum and have the training and skills necessary to teach about these controversial topics.”

Hess and McAvoy co-authored “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” which received the 2016 American Educational Research Association Outstanding Book Award.

The conference also included a keynote panel discussion featuring Hess, Levine and Gloria Ladson-Billings, who is UW-Madison’s Kellner Family Professor of Urban Education.

“Surely nowhere in the U.S. have as many teachers gathered for as thoughtful and as intensive of a discussion of this election as at UW-Madison’s conference,” says Levine. “I was moved by the professionalism and civic commitment of these educators and impressed by the convening power of the School of Education. Wisconsin’s kids will benefit.”

Other keynote presenters included Bennett Singer and David Deschamps, who combined to produce and direct the award-winning PBS documentary, “Electoral Dysfunction.”

“Overall, I think that the conference provided numerous opportunities for teachers working in very different political contexts across the state to collaboratively examine the diverse ways in which this topic could be taught to students,” says UW-Madison’s Li-Ching Ho, an assistant professor with the No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction who led a breakout session titled, “Electoral Manipulation: International Perspectives.”

The conference was hosted by UW-Madison’s School of Education. The coordinating team included: Kate Jorgensen, a teacher at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton; Matthew Freid, an outreach specialist with Education Outreach and Partnerships within the School of Education; and McAvoy.