Six Ways to Talk with Students about Politics

A MiddleWeb Blog

history_logo-bI’ve never taught U.S. history during the fall of a presidential election campaign. World history and English, yes. But 8th grade history, with its focus on constitutional processes? Until now, I haven’t been so lucky.

This spring’s classes gave a dress rehearsal for the run-up to November. As the campaigning heated up, we needed ways to discuss the election’s early stages without dragging ourselves into a political quagmire.

Here are six approaches – most of which can be pulled out on the fly – that made my classroom slightly more civilized than it might otherwise have been. I hope to use all of them in the next three months! (NOTE: See Sarah’s September follow-up post!)

1. Analyze, don’t judge. 

The frequency of this phrase coming from my mouth skyrocketed as the primaries spiraled on. It is all too easy to slide to the lowest common denominator when students bash the latest news about a candidate they disagree with.

If someone said that one candidate lied or couldn’t be trusted, I often asked, “What’s your evidence?”

If two students devolved into a back-and-forth over whose candidate was better than the other, I told them, “Analyze, don’t judge,” or eighth grader Hannah’s revised version: “Analyze now, judge later.”

2. Remember local politics, too. 

Focusing on the presidential election is phenomenal entertainment. It feels like a football game or wrestling match to which the entire nation has front-row seats.

ele don fightBut, as onetime Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.”

It can be equally fun to remind students of other ballot topics, such as local propositions or judgeships, that affect their lives possibly more than one national decision.

A bonus of discussing local politics is that students can feel justifiably smart by teaching their parents about ballot initiatives.

3. Get on your feet for pros and cons. 

write on boardWith a controversial issue, it can be energizing for students to move around and parse both sides. For instance, this spring a student brought in the day’s big news for a current events presentation: the Justice and Education departments had told public schools to allow students of either gender to choose the bathroom with which they identified.

Rather than ask students what they thought in a discussion, which could get messy pretty quickly, I asked them to brainstorm a pro and a con about this government directive in pairs and put one idea on the board.

Most partnerships stood up within a minute or two, quickly filling both sides of the board with the debate’s salient points, from “achieves gender equality” to “makes other students feel uncomfortable.”

We had covered the topic with little to no discomfort and a lot of critical thinking.

4. Ask: What are the important issues?

Sometimes I wonder what to do with clips from campaign speeches or debates, which can lull students into simplifying their own arguments.

graphWith one debate clip this spring, we divided the board in two horizontally. On the top, students listed the issues that the politicians actually discussed, such as late-term abortion and email confidentiality. On the bottom, students put issues that the candidates could have discussed, such as police brutality and education funding.

Students noted that the topics on the bottom held more subtlety and depth, while those on top seemed more like headline grabbers.

5. Pull in humor.

Humorous video clips can solidify a concept memorably. However, I always screen carefully.

The now-classic Saturday Night Live sendup of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill,” in which the cast skewered Obama’s executive order on immigration in 2014, is thoughtful enough to merit showing again this fall, regardless of political stance.

On the other hand, a Jimmy Kimmel satire based on the musical The Producers, in which Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick try to create an unelectable candidate and end up with a surprisingly popular Donald Trump, is too partisan to show.

The satirical newspaper The Onion is often an equal-opportunity offender, and students frequently bring in pieces that satirize society in general, such as “Facebook Clarifies Site Not Intended to Be Users’ Primary Information Source.” (Watch for some strong language, though.)

6. When all else fails: Vote.

One of the most sobering moments of the spring came when I did an anonymous poll in class, on little slips of paper, of who supported which candidate in the election.

vote checkmarkMany vocal students in my fairly liberal classes assumed that no one around them supported Donald Trump. I wondered if that was true.

The results were fascinating: In one section, and not the most loudly liberal one, everyone voted Democratic. In the second, a handful voted for Trump. And in the third, fully one-third voted Republican.

No one had much to say after I counted the votes. We were all, I think, remembering the power of the quiet minority.

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is Associate Head of School at Flintridge Prep in La Canada, California, where she has also taught English Language Arts. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge, 2017). She presents at conferences and writes for a variety of educational sites. You can find all of Sarah's writing at

2 Responses

  1. Fran the Teacher says:

    Could be that my ears mislead, but it sounds like the bill says, “Oh, you black ass!” the second time he’s pushed down the stairs. If so, I wouldn’t consider this appropriate. Sorry if I misheard. Please inform me if so. I’d like to use the clip.

  2. Sarah Cooper says:

    It’s very possible, given that it’s from SNL, but this line has never jumped out at me in half-a-dozen showings in class. Sometimes with clips that have one inappropriate part, I will mute or fast-forward those few seconds… and I think I’ll do that this fall with this one. Thanks for the heads-up!

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