Teaching Controversial Issues in Election Season

This fall, social studies teachers will be teaching about the elections in a variety of ways. For example, consider the following teachers’ approaches. Which is most like your approach? What are the advantages of that approach? What are its disadvantages? Click below for lessons on the 2008 Election.

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Teacher A:

I love teaching during election season. Voting is the most important form of citizen participation in a democracy. By engaging students in the excitement of the election—the strategy, the competition, the good old-fashioned “horse race”—I can capture them as future voters.

I do a lot of election-related activities. Students track public opinion polls; they analyze advertising by candidates, parties, and interest groups; they examine where candidates and their surrogates appear (and what they say in different locations); they look closely at past popular and electoral voting data in an attempt to identify each candidate’s electoral strategy; they compare news coverage of the candidates; and they conduct a mock election at the school, complete with advertising campaigns, speeches, and voter registration.

If my students stay up late on election night to watch returns, I know I have done my job. Election—the strategy, the competition, the good old-fashioned “horse race”—I can capture them as future voters.

Teacher B:

I love teaching during election season. The media attention to a range of controversial public issues being discussed by the candidates provides a stimulus for students to pay attention to those issues. My goal is to develop in students a commitment to engage in democratic discourse about contentious issues and to work to resolve those differences.

Sometimes it’s hard to get students interested in issues like the Iraq War, much less NAFTA. But when candidates are talking about the issues, they’re harder for kids to avoid. Basically, we spend the fall studying five issues that are key to the election. We analyze and discuss what the problems are, what policies and citizen action should be undertaken to solve the problems, and which candidate’s or party’s approach is closer to the policies favored by students. In addition, we study and discuss the problem of voter turnout and students take on a service project related to that issue.

If students are still talking about issues after the election, I know I have done my job.

Teacher C:

I love teaching during election season. Because elections are one of the hallmarks of democracy, I want students to understand exactly how the election system works and to look critically at whether it is working properly. We start by examining why elections are required in a democracy. Students discuss what various terms really mean (e.g., “free and fair,” “one man, one vote”) and develop criteria for determining whether U.S. elections in fact have those features.

We then analyze a number of proposed and enacted “reforms”—changing the electoral college, term limits, campaign finance reform, establishing e-voting. Working in panels, students research the reforms and the problems they address; they follow coverage of the elections in international news sources to get a different perspective on U.S. elections. Each panel presents on their topic and facilitates a large group discussion of the problem the reform addresses. In addition, we study and discuss the problem of voter turnout, but we approach it as a systemic problem rather than a problem with voters; that is, we look at how elections could be improved so that more voters would want to participate.

When, after the election, my students are discussing to what extent the election indicates that our democracy is working well, I know I have done my job.


In a two-day workshop in June, CELD and 15 middle and high school teachers explored how teaching about the election can focus on controversial issues. As part of this workshop, CELD staff developed four lesson plans for use in classrooms this fall; the lessons below were revised based on input from teachers participating in the workshop.

Teaching Controversial Issues in Election Season was developed by Laurel Singleton and is supported by a grant from The Piton Foundation.