How to Teach Politics in Class (And Live to Tell About It)

Bringing controversy into the classroom in a healthy way

This year’s election is definitely one for the record books. We’ve had a year full of drama and speculation, COVID-19, and an even deeper focus on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And those are just the beginning! We are definitely in the middle of what some might call a “highly teachable moment.” While many teachers are wary of wading too deep into controversy and matters of personal opinion, other teachers consider times like these fodder for especially impactful lessons and classroom activities.

Here are some tried-and-true strategies to teach politics, political systems, and elections that have worked in classrooms around the country. And the good news is, you can do these activities in-person or online.

1. Critique the televised debates

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Teachers across the country are reporting higher-than-usual levels of student anxiety over this year’s televised political debates. The debates have not always been models of decorum and substance. But any presidential debate is rich with teachable content, especially when students come to the debates with a solid foundation in one or more of the policy issues being discussed.

  • Assign relevant research topics ahead of time. Then have your students watch the debates with that knowledge in mind, using what they know to assess the candidates’ positions.
  • Assign students to fact check the candidates.
  • Ask students to identify the best moments in a debate, as measured by standards of idea exchange, argument, and counterpoints that you have covered beforehand in class.
  • Another way to alleviate that stress while also teaching important lessons about debate is to introduce students, beforehand, to the ideals and rules of Lincoln-Douglas style debate. Read up on the style and its rule, see sample video clips, and get all the resources you’ll need to introduce and judge Lincoln-Douglas Debates in your own middle school or high school classroom at the National Speech & Debate Association website.
  • Have your students critique a televised debate in terms of how well it conforms to the rules and conventions of Lincoln-Douglas Style debate.

2. Hold Your Own Debates

Scalable to grades three and up, classroom debates are often very popular with students. They relish the chance to express themselves and perform.

Education World shares ideas for five kinds of in-class debates, including using fairy tales and fairy tale characters to debate ethics.

  • Have your students brainstorm topics they care about, including topics local to your school or town. Then select the best topics and give students time, for instance as homework, to think about and research their assigned topic. Ask students to be sure to think of good arguments on both sides of the issue. That way they will be able to anticipate and counter arguments against their position. It’s often helpful to require students to turn in written work in advance of their actual debate.
  • Alternatively, have students debate the same topics and questions brought up in the real, televised debates, but as themselves.

3. Delve Deep into Political Research and…Theatrical Performance

Social studies teacher Chris Sperry has been using mock debates on the Middle East to teach politics to his students for the past 28 years, to great success. Many former students count his class—and the 9-week-long debate project in particular—as the best of their high school career. He came up with the idea when he was “looking for something that would be really motivating for students and involve deep research into issues from the point of view of people from different cultures.”

Students are assigned to a Middle Eastern political leader. After carefully researching that person’s life and opinions and personality for months, they are then asked to take part in political debates as that person, against other students playing other leaders. “It was a failure that first year,” Sperry reports. “They were depicting stereotypical viewpoints, just mimicking caricatures they heard in the America press.”

He learned to push them to dig deeper. “I have them for a half a year before we get to the debates so I know their academic strengths and challenges, political orientations, and more importantly their willingness or need to take on perspectives different from their own. I never give a kid a position that he or she doesn’t want to play.”

But often, many students are willing to stretch themselves and play the part of someone with very different views than their own. During the three-day debate, students dress, speak, and argue as their assigned characters.

Sperry, who will retire this year from his position at Lehman Alternative Community School, a public school in Ithaca, NY, is Director of Curriculum and Staff Development for Project Look Sharp, a media literacy education center of Ithaca College. You can read and use Sperry’s curriculum kit, Media Construction of the Middle East in your own class.

4. Study Media Construction of Presidential Races

Guide your students’ investigation of the presidential campaign (or any other political campaign) by having them study campaign materials like posters, t-shirts, television and radio ads, press coverage, and mailers.

  • Gather and compare like campaign material from two opposing candidates. (Or, for higher grade levels, compare press coverage of similar events on both sides of a race.) How does language, message, and design comprise the message and its tone?
  • Assign students to work on the campaign (hypothetically). Have them design a poster for the candidate of their choice. Then present their design in class, pitching its ability to persuade or inform voters.
  • Integrate media decoding of campaign messages into your students’ study of U.S. history using Project Look Sharp’s free kit, Media Construction of Presidential Campaigns, which includes over 100 lessons and media documents from elections spanning more than 200 years, from 1800 to 2008.

5. Hold Classroom Elections for Classroom Roles

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Who would make the best classroom meteorologist? Best classroom historian, fishtank cleaner, greeter, poet? Hold an election and let democracy decide! Holding classroom elections, and allowing kids to campaign for positions and vote for their peers, makes for an unbeatable lesson to teach politics — how it works and what it’s for.

  • Have your class brainstorm a list of positions your community would benefit from having students serve in.
  • Assign students to think about which, if any, position they would like to be a candidate for.
  • Include a lesson about types of voting and systems of representation.
  • Schedule a campaign period—several days to a couple of weeks in duration.
  • Hold your elections.
  • Make sure to plan a debrief session, where students discuss what they learned during their election process.

How do you teach politics? 
how to teach politics


Posted by Emily Hopkins

Emily Hopkins is an editor and writer for We Are Teachers.

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