Voting Lesson Plans: Teaching Democracy and Civics

Most social studies teachers discuss voting with students in early elementary school. Students in a classroom will use ballots to vote for their favorite ice cream flavors or whether they want to play kickball or basketball during recess. However, as students get older, they start to have more nuanced questions about voting. The ballots also get more complicated as students learn about retaining judges and primary elections. 

The 2020 election is setting up to be one of the most difficult. Along with the basics of civics, educators have to contend with heated political rhetoric and new challenges because of the pandemic. 

This guide can help. Use it to update your voting lesson plans to educate your students while having healthy discussions about democracy. 

Teaching Voting During COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all corners of the election — from stumping on the campaign trail to maximizing voter turnout. Your students will likely have questions that textbooks don’t address, which is why you may need to turn to online resources. 

“The people most vulnerable to coronavirus are also the most likely to already face disproportionate obstacles to voting: Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, the elderly, the poor, the incarcerated,” high school social studies teacher Ursula Wolfe-Rocca writes. “Voting rights activists are calling for immediate implementation of measures that are basic, long overdue, and which will protect the health of all voters: extension of early voting, online registration options, universal mail-in-ballots.”

Many educators were already preparing materials to discuss the 2020 election, especially after the polarizing nature of the 2016 presidential race. However, there are several new topics that educators need to incorporate this year — or at least be prepared to address. 

“Across grade levels, topics that previously weren’t covered or not discussed in depth must be part of lesson plans for this election: mail-in ballots, accusations of voter fraud, the Electoral College vs. the popular vote, delays in results, and the impact of protests and influence of social media on the electorate,” writes Kara Yorio, news editor at School Library Journal. “News literacy and the ability to have respectful and informed conversations are even more critical.” 

There are many resources you can turn to for your updated lesson plans. For example, the team at the Classroom Law Project developed lesson plans about voting during COVID-19 during the primaries, where some states decided to push through with voting while others postponed their elections. They have a lesson plan resource that also ties into the rules surrounding mail-in voting and the arguments for and against it. Because vote-by-mail laws vary by state, you can review the guidelines for your area or compare voter turnout in states with different laws.

For a complete guide on coronavirus-specific civics lesson plans, the American Political Science Association has a list of civic engagement resources for the COVI-19 pandemic. These include remote learning toolkits, resources for both individuals and organizations, and guides on absentee ballots.

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Lessons for Voting, Civics and Protests

As you discuss the 2020 election and voter suppression, you will likely have discussions about race and the current Black Lives Matter protests that have also been featured prominently in the headlines this year. In many cases, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to separate lessons about voting from lessons about oppression — especially when you are talking about who can vote and why. Some thought leaders encourage teachers to have these conversations about race and tie the protests to voting. 

“There are teachers who do avoid talking about race, Black and otherwise,” Tondra Loder-Jackson, professor of educational foundations in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education and author of “Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.” “But there are many teachers who do believe that as a part of their racial identity and heritage, it is important to address these issues.” 

Loder-Jackson explains how some teachers and students were forbidden from protesting during the civil rights movement, but there were still teacher activists. In 1965, more than 100 teachers marched from an elementary school in Selma to the Dallas County courthouse to register to vote. 

There are also discussions you can have about the role of protests in society in relation to elections. How do protests influence voter turnout? What about policy changes? 

“In spite of several legislative victories, we’ve heard pundits and lawmakers say that voting—not protesting—is the real solution to systemic racism,” Andre M. Perry, Ph.D., author of “Know Your Price,” and Carl Romer write at The Brookings Institution. They reference Barack Obama’s refrain, “Don’t boo. Vote.” as an example. However, they caution educators from taking an either/or stance — or devaluing protesting by holding voting on a higher pedestal. 

“Voting is only one way that people can exercise their power to create policy change—now, as national protests grow and Black athletes boycott their games, we are being shown that there are other ways to influence policy,” Perry and Romer write.  

One discussion you can have is the role of athletics in protesting and voting. Teams from the NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL all boycotted their games in 2020 to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This peaceful protest was then followed by a push to encourage voter turnout – and the use of between 50 to 100 arenas as polling centers. “People love their arenas,” Eugene Jarecki, filmmaker, author and co-chair of the Election Super Centers Project, tells NBC. “They know their teams. They want to vote with their teams.”

Educators can use these examples to highlight how protesting and voting are both tools of civic engagement and can be valued together. 

Derek Lartaud, an interactive media producer at KQED, shares a lesson plan that asks students if there is a “right way” to protest. This lesson can be tied to laws in the United States, protests during the civil rights movement, and the role of protests in changing public opinion. All of these questions are topical and can relate to the upcoming election. 

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Non-Partisan Resources for Voting Lesson Plans

You aren’t the only educator wondering how they can cover a litany of new election issues in just a few classes. Fortunately, there are several education experts out there with the resources you need. Here are a few reputable organizations to turn to:

  • Hashtag Vote is a non-partisan voter education group that strives to reach young people. The organizers want to increase voter registration and turnout. There are lesson plans on voter turnout (Does my vote matter?) along with lessons on close elections.
  • iCivics is an organization with a game-centered curriculum for middle and high school students. They have several teaching resources and lesson plans that you can use, from basic mock elections to discussions about impeachment. They even have a lesson plan called NewsFeed Defenders where students learn to spot false reporting and hidden ads online. Use their search function to filter results by state standards, subject and appropriate grade level. 
  • The Bill of Rights Institute provides educational materials to help teachers discuss America’s founding documents and the role of civics in our society. Their curricula includes what it means to be American, votes for women, and religious liberty. Each section has multiple lessons that you can choose from and adapt to your classroom. 
  • Natalie Proulx and Katherine Schulten, editors of The New York Times Learning Network and both former teachers, have developed a guide with 11 ways to keep students engaged through November. This is a frequently-updated list with multiple action items until each suggestion. They include dozens of reputable resources that you can use to educate — and entertain — your students as they follow the election.
  • There are also some lesson plans online that can help students take action and get involved in democracy even if they are too young to vote. The Washington State History Museum has one lesson plan about the right to vote and why women fought for it. A discussion question is whether or not people should be allowed to vote when they turn 16. Students can create protest posters and even write letters to their representatives about how they feel. The museum has other lesson plans as well for students in different grades.  

Even if you don’t teach a civics-specific subject, you may have to field discussion about voting and the election in 2020. These lessons can make difficult discussions a little easier. 

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Your Lesson Plans Can Help Students As They Enter College

While many high school students are eager to vote, this excitement tends to wane during their college years. Elizabeth Redden at Teaching Higher Ed reports that college students historically have one of the lowest rates of voter turnout in the country. A main reason for this is that students away from home don’t know how to vote: they’re unsure about changing their addresses to their new states or requesting mail-in ballots from their homes. However, these trends are changing. From 2014 to 2018, voter participation in college jumped from 19 to 40 percent. Voter advocates are pushing to ensure these participation levels never reverse.

“It is our responsibility to encourage students to vote,” Jeremy Knoll writes at We Are Teachers. “We should encourage every student of voting age to go to their respective polling place on Election Day and do their civic duty. Even students who aren’t yet old enough to vote should see their teachers talk about and promote voting.”

The lessons you develop for your class can make your students excited to vote when they turn 18 and help them understand this responsibility after they graduate. You can create a generation of voters who develop healthy civic habits that stick with them all their lives.

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