Teaching about the 2016 Elections conference give teachers tools to talk about politics in the classroom


Conference gives teachers tools to talk about politics in the classroom

As the race for the White House heated up this past fall, educators in the classroom had 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 was comfortable discussing the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or teaching about hot-button policy issues.

But simply steering clear of such controversy wasn’t the answer, said UW–Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess.

“Teaching about politics in the classroom is not something that should be seen as an elective or as optional – this is important,” said 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 were eligible to vote in November. 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.”

Teaching about the Elections conferenceUW–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 was 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.

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

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, the program director with the Center for Ethics and Education.

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