With political issues plastered all over social media and an election right around the corner, it's the perfect time to teach kids about government, voting rights and the issues that affect this country. Or so you might think. In this overheated political environment, educators and parents alike are finding it difficult to give kids an unbiased view of American politics. Is it even possible to help kids understand the issues without forcing our own political issues down their throats?
It is very important to me that my daughters come to their own conclusions about politics and that they understand that there are valid points on both sides of every issue. My ultimate goal is for my kids to have a clear picture of the issues and decide — on their own — where they stand. But, like most parents, I have found it both more difficult and more important than ever to explain these issues to my kids. I can't seem to help allowing my own political leanings to bleed into the conversation because for the first time ever, I truly do not understand the opposing viewpoint on so many of the important topics that are facing our country.
I am not alone in this conundrum. For many parents, the matters at the forefront of this election cycle are not so much a judgment call as a question of morality. And if you think it's difficult for parents to navigate these turbulent waters, just imagine how challenging this terrain is for teachers.
Stephan Neidenbach, a middle school teacher and father of two from Annapolis, Maryland, finds it interesting to play devil's advocate with his history students when talking about political issues. "If the majority of the class leans one way politically I will challenge them, even if I agree with them personally," Neidenbach said. "I can switch from being a Trump supporter to a Clinton supporter, and vice versa, in a heartbeat."
His approach may be a hit with students, but it's not always popular with parents. At one school where Neidenbach taught, he was asked not to bring up controversial subjects in his class. "How to teach U.S. History without controversy is kind of tough though," he said.
Stephanie Moody is a middle school teacher in Indialantic, Florida, where seventh graders are required to take a state-wide civics exam. As part of her curriculum, Moody compiles information from nonpartisan websites, removes all identifying information (pictures and names) and presents the information to students. "The kids go in kind of blindfolded, and it forces them to look at the issues," Moody said in an interview with Fast Company.
Interestingly, Moody also noted that she doesn't think her approach will work during this particular election cycle because the major candidates are such polar opposites on so many issues that it will be easy for the kids to guess who is who.
For parents and teachers who want to help kids understand election issues, there are a few tools that can help present information without bombarding them with personal emotion. Websites such as the Center for Civics Education offer lesson plans and videos on timely political topics. Kids can also play games on iCivics such as "Argument Wars" or "Win the White House" that help sharpen political debate skills.
Another website, Newsela, offers kid-friendly news articles that can be sorted by age and reading level. "For students being exposed to civics for the first time, this election is quite the introduction!" said Kristen Marion, a public relations rep for the company. Newsela is also hosting a online mock election for students that will likely — if its mock primaries are any indication — draw hundreds of thousands of student votes.
Ideally, the best way to teach kids to become responsible, informed citizens is to model that behavior for them. And that means playing nice by avoiding name-calling and insults, fact-checking information from reliable sources and — most importantly — taking the time to vote.