Managing election interest – and angst – at school

October 26, 2020 |

By Kim Machnik

Any election year is a major event in the life of a school. At its best, an election is electrifying. It is an opportunity to witness the democratic process in real time, critically engage with salient political issues, and experience argumentation, dialogue across difference, and coalition building. 

For children who are sensitive, empathetic, and socially or politically aware, an election can also introduce intense emotions. Toss in a global pandemic, a deeply polarized nation, concerns about unrest and violence in the wake of the election, and near-constant internet use by children and adults alike, navigating an election season can be especially delicate and complex. 

Even in the rollercoaster ride of 2020, however, the current election can be a powerful and positive community learning experience.

School culture matters

At Acera, we are intentional about building safe, supportive, and brave spaces for students to build community, develop growth mindsets, and cultivate core capacities. Classrooms are safe when children can trust that their physical, social, and emotional needs will be understood and met, and their voices, boundaries, and contributions respected. They are supportive when every child is consistently able to access learning in ways that meet them where they are. And they are brave when every child is empowered and motivated to explore ideas and take intellectual risks.

Our classrooms are governed by mutually agreed upon communication and culture norms that are co-created with students. In the run-up to the election, we are ensuring that every grouping in the school – no matter how infrequently they meet – has those norms clearly shared and reinforced with students. We know that students thrive when their intelligence and perspectives are seen and honored, so as adults, we answer the questions children ask honestly, acknowledge what we don’t know, and model seeking information, revising our thinking based on new evidence, and repairing mistakes. 

This culture offers shared accountability for respectful interactions, provides opportunities for divergent thinking, cultivates flexible engagement with ideas, and makes space for all viewpoints (with the expectation that strongly-held views require strong evidence, and should serve to fuel – not derail – discourse).

As with many topics, there is no one path to readiness for engagement in rich political or social ideas. To provide a supportive classroom, therefore, we must ensure a low floor (easy entry points) and a high ceiling (plenty of substance and space to build on ideas) when we engage with topics surrounding the election. There must also be multiple ways to access the learning, such as research and writing, discussion, creative arts, reading, reflective journaling, or classroom simulations. 

Before the election

During this election season, we are working to ensure students have an age-appropriate understanding of the election and related events. Most often, this flows naturally from student interest and inquiry. At Acera, politics in general and this election in particular are playground and hallway topics, even for some of our youngest learners. That makes these topics perfect fodder for a responsive, inquiry-based approach to learning, and in fact, the safest and most productive place for these questions, ideas, and opinions is in the classroom, guided and supported by teachers. At Acera, student learning about the election:

  • Focuses on specific policies, platforms, issues, and ideas, and avoids generalizations about political parties or personal attacks on candidates.
  • Draws upon our Systems Thinking core capacity to focus on the structure and function of the system and the ways the many races being decided will influence it, rather than on any one candidate or office. This allows students to situate their understanding in a historical and civic context, rather than being swept into the vagaries of the news cycle. For example, one classroom is using the legal and legislative battle over the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation to understand the relationship between three branches of the US government and how the balance of power within and between them can influence which narratives and stakeholders gain and sustain power. 
  • Explores different dimensions of governance and issues that have surfaced during this election season. For example, one classroom is using an interactive game to explore voting rights and mechanisms of enfranchisement and suppression of voters.

Staff are also working during this time to identify and proactively support students who may hold particular vulnerabilities around the election, based on their neurological profile, mental health status, intersectional identity, political views, or any other factors. These students may need one on one coaching or counseling, breaks from or alternatives to politically-focused learning experiences, or other individualized accommodations. 

Election week

No one can learn well while in the grip of powerful emotions, especially strongly negative ones like fear, anger, or grief. Regardless of the outcome, our focus during election week will be on supporting students through their emotional experience and reinforcing the safe environment.

This includes:

  • Students may worry about the potential of violent unrest, and depending on their own identity groups (including race, religion, immigration status, gender identity, or sexual orientation), they may raise questions about whether their safety and that of their loved ones will be protected. To help students navigate this, we call their attention to their immediate surroundings: the physical safety of the classroom, the culture norms to which they and their peers have agreed and hold each other accountable, and the many adults who care for them and who will always work hard to keep them safe. As at any time, we can’t guarantee that scary or safety-threatening outcomes won’t occur, but we can keep the promise of working within our sphere of influence at school to care for them and protect them. Sharing examples of individuals and groups who are using their power and agency to stand up for their own and others’ safety and rights in productive ways may also help foster a sense of hope and empowerment as students consider larger-scale questions of safety and belonging.  
  • Providing individual space to process emotions (such as one-on-one time with a trusted adult or reflective journaling), rather than sharing worries, fears, or frustrations in an open forum, where hearing other children’s emotional responses may deepen individual distress. 
  • Acknowledging trends (such as, “the uncertainty around the election results is bringing up a lot of intense emotions for many of us, which means we need to be extra gentle with each other”) while taking care not to marginalize anyone’s experience by doing so. Some students may feel excitement or relief while others are experiencing grief or anger. 
  • Sensitively differentiating experiences, such as offering opportunities to ask questions and discuss ideas for some, and ways to turn their attention to something else entirely for others.
  • Adults turning to one another for community support, but not sharing their personal emotions with students.

Beyond the election, and always

An election season like this one throws into sharp relief the need for a civil society made up of critical systems thinkers who employ empathy and creativity in their approach to solving problems. We also know that a sense of agency, both individual and collective, is essential to sustaining hope and well-being during trying times. This election and this year’s events have inspired powerful, timely questions that students will explore in their learning as we move forward, including:

  • How do we use science to make decisions? What does a science-based approach to decision making really look like?
  • How are narratives shaped? How do we identify accurate information, distinguish it from opinion, and recognize how our beliefs shape the way we organize and make meaning of it?
  • How do people use their voices and their personal and collective agency to enact meaningful social change?
  • How can we deepen our understanding of others’ perspectives, particularly those of marginalized people, and employ that learning in the society we seek to shape?

2020 has pushed all of us, adults and children alike, beyond where we are comfortable. Uncertainty is unavoidable, but we can choose how we experience it. At Acera, we seek to cultivate the safety and support in one another that allows our students to be courageous in the face of fear, compassionate despite anger, and curious as they navigate the unknown. 

Kim Machnik is the curriculum, instruction, and professional learning coordinator at Acera: The Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership.