Teaching About the 2018 Elections


By tapping into its talents and expertise, the School of Education is involved in a range of efforts designed to positively impact our community — and our world. Following are a few examples of how faculty, staff, students and alumni are working together and with valuable partners to push boundaries and deliver innovative programs that are making a difference in real and relevant ways.

Conference delivers strategies, tools to help teachers
engage students in discussions of controversial political issues

With anticipation for November’s high-stakes midterm elections heating up earlier this fall, educators had a golden opportunity to teach students about the American political system, and how to become insightful and engaged citizens.

But the nation’s partisan divide can make it difficult to hold respectful and thoughtful discussions on any range of topics.

“It’s important to find ways to prepare kids to participate in a highly partisan, polarized world — and yet we need to do this in a nonpartisan way,” says UW–Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess. “I call this challenge the paradox of political education.”

In an effort to give educators the strategies, tools and confidence necessary to talk about politics in the classroom, the UW–Madison School of Education hosted a conference on Sept. 22 titled, “Teaching About the 2018 Elections: Preparing Students for Political Engagement.” The day-long event was attended by nearly 200 people, including pre-service teachers from the School of Education, K-12 teachers and administrators from across Wisconsin, and civics education experts from around the country.

Fall 2018 Learning Connections cover at 300 px“The conference was an outstanding opportunity for educators to collaborate and learn from people like Diana Hess and other experts in this field about what research says is the most effective way to talk about controversial issues and to get students civically engaged,” says Mary Ellen Daneels, who serves as the lead teacher mentor

for the McCormick Foundation, heading professional development opportunities related to social studies standards and a new high school civics requirement in the state of Illinois.

Daneels, who presented at the conference, said she still gets pushback from people wondering why politics and civics education deserve a space in the classroom.

“I ask, ‘How many of you believe students would be ready to get a driver’s license simply by passing the rules of the road test,’” says Daneels, who taught at West Chicago Community High School for 27 years. “No one ever thinks that’s a good idea. Kids need practical experience behind the wheel that’s supported by expert practitioners to build those skills and dispositions to drive a car. Why do we think that we are adequately preparing kids to participate in our democratic republic simply by having them pass a citizenship or constitution test? We need to engage students in ways that give them not only the knowledge, which is important, but the skills and disposition to become civically engaged.”

The Teaching about the Elections conference featured two keynote panel discussions, with one on pedagogy and another on journalism.

Participants also were able to attend three different breakout sessions during the course of the day, from a list of 15 options. Each session was designed to be interactive and focused on teaching about issues related to the 2018 November elections. The breakouts fell into four categories: pedagogical strategies; issue forums; featured curricula; and administrator sessions.

“The conference was a great opportunity to hear from experts who know about the best ways to talk about controversial issues,” says Jessie Marshall, a conference presenter and former teacher who spent the past two years as director of social science and civic engagement with the Chicago Public Schools.

Marshall, who just started a Ph.D. program in the learning sciences at Northwestern University, says she read an award-winning book co-authored by Hess and Paula McAvoy — “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education” — when she was a classroom teacher trying to figure out how to do a better job of talking about controversial issues with students.

“Teachers are often afraid and they’re scared because they don’t know how to talk about these issues,” says Marshall. “Conferences like the one in Madison are great because they allow educators to network and share ideas and learn how to access a whole range of outstanding resources.”

This can be especially true for educators who teach in rural areas and don’t have easy access to centralized resources of a large school district or a nearby university.

Teaching About the 2018 Elections program coverPam Smith notes that she is a one-person social studies department for the just more than 100 students attending Florence High School in far northern Wisconsin.

“Out here in rural Wisconsin it’s easy to get out of the loop when it comes to finding resources to help students,” says Smith. “So having a university-sponsored event was a great opportunity for me to come and hear what experts and what other teachers are saying and thinking. The best part about the conference was all the great teaching materials and resources the presenters made available. As a teacher, we don’t have a lot of time to create new PowerPoints or handouts, so having everything provided to us online or via email, and having follow-up conversations with people I met, was really great.”

“Being given access to very specific lesson plans and online resources was very helpful,” adds Priyanka Subramanian, who is enrolled in UW–Madison’s secondary education master’s program, and who is currently student teaching in Madison.

Presenters at the conference from the School of Education included: Bianca Baldridge, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies; Li-Ching Ho, an associate professor with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; Jeremy Stoddard, an associate professor with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; graduate students Lauren Bagwell and Sean Corrigan; and Merri Lindgren and Madeline Tyner, who both are librarians with the School’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center. The event also included political science and journalism professors from UW–Madison, working journalists and civics education experts from across the country.

This conference was funded by the Gibb Democracy Education Fund and the Claudia Grams Pogreba Fund. Mary Hopkins Gibb is a 1955 School of Education alumna. Her husband, Bill, was a 1953 Wisconsin School of Business alumnus. Claudia Grams Pogreba is a 1970 School of Education alumna.

“This conference is but one example of how supporting the School of Education allows us to offer valuable programs for teachers and others that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” says Hess, who holds the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education. 

Teaching About the Elections shirt
© 2019 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System • Please contact the School of Education External Relations Office with questions, issues or comments about this site.