Two key questions teachers should ask students after election

Ben-Porath below wrote a piece about how teachers can approach the many issues that will arise after the polls close and votes are counted, which could take days or weeks. The graduate school gave me permission to publish the piece below.

By Sigal Ben-Porath

After more than a year of campaigning from President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, Election Day is almost here. But there’s a very real possibility we won’t know the winner the night of Nov. 3, or for days or weeks beyond. Between delays in counting mail-in ballots, close margins, or disputed results, the potential scenarios are legally and politically complex.

Trust the media (and verify)

In this moment, you and your students will need the most up-to-date information, which you won’t find in a textbook. You’ll want expert opinions on the latest developments. While you probably can’t get a constitutional scholar to join your Zoom room, watching a clip from a journalist for a trusted news outlet such as PBS can be a good substitute. Read articles in class or assign your students to find stories on different areas. In addition to keeping current with events, this can double as a media literacy lesson, with a discussion about sourcing, biases, and the difference between news and opinion.

Focus on individual roles

A presidential election is a sprawling event, and officials at every level of government play key roles. If there is a delayed or disputed result, you can have small teams of students examine the responsibilities of a county board of elections, the state legislature, Congress, or the Supreme Court. These teams can look at how issues were resolved in previous elections such as the 2000 presidential election, the election of 1824 — which was decided in the House of Representatives — or contested elections at the state level, such as the 2018 Georgia governor’s race. This will help your students understand the story they are living through. But it will also reinforce that American democracy extends far beyond the Oval Office.

In the days after the 2016 election, many students who supported Hillary Clinton or were troubled by Trump’s racist, sexist, and xenophobic remarks during the campaign were anxious, scared, or angry. Some sought refuge in the classroom. Regardless of the outcome — or how long it takes to get there — there will be students who are upset again. That’s the reality in our divided country. Teachers can debrief with their students and make space for their students’ feelings. They can, and should, reaffirm the safety of every student in the school community — especially if we see another wave of racist incidents in schools. But teachers aren’t trained as social workers or therapists, and emotional processing shouldn’t be their ultimate goal. Emotionally charged moments can be at the foundation of powerful learning experiences. Teachers can use these moments to help their students develop their voices and direct them toward possible action, regardless of the students’ political views.

No matter who wins the election, the course of American democracy in the coming years will not be settled. The list of issues waiting to be addressed — the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, health care, K-12 education, college access, voting access, the environment, immigration policy, to name a few — is too long for them all to be “top priority” for the next administration or the next Congress. Laws are often initiated and get passed because coalitions of engaged citizens push for them. If your candidate wins, you won’t get everything you want. If your candidate loses, the winner won’t get everything they want either. The actions of the people such as your students will decide the balance. So perhaps the two most important questions a teacher can ask their students after the election are: “What can you do now? And who can you bring with you?” Focusing on action, and on building coalition, is the best way for teachers to help their students join the work of revitalizing democracy for the next generation.

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