Thesis and Evidence – teaching the 2016 election without bias and with the Common Core
There is no one more intent on making America great than a U.S. history teacher. Calculus teachers might struggle to make their material relevant, but history teachers do not. Students still complain, asking “What’s the point of learning this?” But, unlike higher math teachers, we have an answer. Because one day they will vote. Because history is made by those who show up. (Thanks, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.) Because our Constitution is “a living document.” (Thanks, Justice Thurgood Marshall.) Because “We welcome the scrutiny of the world – because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect.” (Thanks, Obama.) And because I want my students to think “there’s a million things I haven’t done, just you wait!” (Thanks, Lin Manuel Miranda.) And then I want them to do those million things. The sooner the better.
This leads me to teaching the 2016 election. Elections are my favorite social studies topic to teach. I love watching my students grow into active citizens, critical consumers of information, and future voters. I love watching them examine an issue that they think they already know, examine it so intently that they begin to realize that it – and everything – is far more complicated than it originally seemed. I love presenting them with polar opposite and yet equally valid arguments for and against a policy and see them discuss themselves hoarse defending one side or the other. I love teaching in an election year. But this year is different. Because this year is the year of the candidacy of Donald Trump.
As this campaign cycle unfolded over the summer, I grew more and more worried about teaching the 2016 presidential election. How was I supposed to remain somehow neutral, somehow unbiased, somehow above the fray when the fabric of civil discourse was fraying at the seams because of a 70-year-old toddler couldn’t locate his human decency filter?
My students know enough about me and my identity to be able to infer my political leanings, but I do not insert my own politics into the classroom. In the past, during other elections, I have still been able to teach about politics by examining arguments from both parties in a way that presented both platforms and both candidates as viable, defendable options. This kind of teaching encouraged critical thinking, and I think students walked away with a deeper appreciation of complicated issues. If the desired outcome of an argument is to win, it can be frustrating to be able to see every side of an issue and realize they are all valid. However, if the desired outcome of a lesson is to create informed future voters, then mission accomplished. But these “ifs” assume the positive intent of parties, politicians, and platforms. They assume that a party is putting forth a candidate and proposed policies that have America’s and American’s best interests at heart. I cannot assume that for both parties in this election. The Democrats are far from perfect, but their platform is a well-considered document designed to unify the country, and their nominee is a well-qualified public servant with decades of work in government under her belt. The Republicans have written a divisive manifesto designed to cleave our country apart down race and class lines, and their nominee is a lawsuit-riddled businessman with questionable ethics and the mouth of a racist, sexist, classist sailor. A statement which might be offensive to sailors.
I was lost. But I found my way through Common Core State Standards.
There has been much political hay made about Common Core State Standards (CCSS), even to the point that they have been demonized as the brainchild of a broken education system. The fact that they amount to an unfunded mandate. The fact that they are a national program when states have always controlled their own education policies. The fact that they often result in more standardized tests rather than fewer. But none of these issues are about the standards themselves but rather the environment they have inadvertently created, and while much about the education system is broken, the Common Core State Standards are not why. They are designed to “prepare all students for success in college, career, and life by the time they graduate high school,” and they stress the “critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills” required for that success. This is according to the Common Core State Standards’ own website.* Of course, it needs to be seen through the lens of marketing rather than being accepted as truth. That being said, I have taught with the Common Core much of my teaching career, and I have found that they can be an invaluable tools in guiding my instruction to meet all students’ needs.
This time around, this election, I have found that they can be an invaluable tool in guiding my instruction to meet my own needs. My own need for sanity in the 2016 election.
Every day, I have the privilege of spending two hours each period with the most thoughtful and engaged young people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. During those two hour periods, I am to teach them English Language Arts (essentially reading and writing) and Social Studies. In my case, as an 8th grade social studies teacher in my district, that means I teach current events in addition to United States History through the end of the Civil War. Thanks to the fact that I teach multiple subjects in the same block of time, I can often combine my teaching of social studies and reading and writing, using primary source documents from history as mentor texts and writing informative or argumentative texts in response to historical or current events. And this is how the Common Core State Standards will save this election and future ones.
During the last election, my district had not yet adopted Common Core State Standards, standards that place a significant emphasis on teaching about argumentative text and how an author creates that argument through claims, reasoning, and evidence. I still, of course, taught the election through a critical lens, encouraging students to dig deeper and never accept statements as fact before research. But this year, that critical lens will be even more essential, and this year, I have the Common Core State Standards to back me up.
When teaching an election, political speeches, press releases, and platforms are invaluable primary source resources, and my students will use the Common Core State Standards as a guide to analyzing those speeches, press releases and platforms. For example, take Reading Informational Text Standard 8.6.** The standard reads that students should, by the end of 8th grade, be able to “determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.” Reading Informational Text Standard 8.1 states that same student should be able to “cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” And Reading History Standard 8.6 is even more fitting. It states that students should be able to “identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).” Essentially, the Common Core State Standards is going to allow me to turn my classroom into a fact-checking think tank. Not only allow it; encourage it; require it; mandate it.
The most recent issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine focused on teaching the 2016 election. The article “Teach 2016” began with a sobering statement:
“This year feels so extreme that nearly half the educators who responded to a Teaching Tolerance survey conducted in March said they hesitated to teach about the 2016 election at all. ’It is so inflammatory that no one wants to even discuss it,’ said one New York middle school administrator via the survey. ‘Not good when we should be talking about issues.’” ***
“Teach 2016” went on to offer teachers strategies to use in approaching this inflammatory election, including a list of questions to ask students to promote the critical consumption of election rhetoric. The list included the questions “Is what’s being said true? What’s the evidence? Can you think of any counter-examples to this statement?” Questions I plan to use daily in my teaching of this year’s election.
Which brings me back to the Common Core State Standards. Writing Standard 8.1 states that students should, by the end of 8th grade, be able to “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence” and “use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.” What this means is this: to finish 8th grade as a proficient writer, students must be able to write an argument that not only can be supported with reasoning and evidence, but that reasoning must be “clear” and the evidence “relevant.” And don’t forget the best part. Students must also be able to write counterarguments, must be able to acknowledge the other side(s) of an issue, must be able to provide a rebuttal to that counterargument, and must do it all in a style that is “appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” (Common Core Writing Standard 8.4) Just imagine if Donald Trump could acknowledge a counterargument. Just imagine if he could write in a style that was appropriate to his task of running for president and his audience of the American public. Just imagine if he believed in “creat[ing] cohesion,” like the Common Core Writing Standard 8.1 does.
Just imagine if Donald Trump had been educated to have the “critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills” that are required to be a candidate for president of this great nation. Just imagine if Donald Trump had been taught according to the Common Core State Standards. Just imagine if Donald Trump were an 8th grader. He wouldn’t be up to standard.
Just imagine if my 8th graders, my critical consumers of information, my students proficient in claims, evidence, reasoning, and counterarguments, could vote. 2016 would be a very different year.
I don’t know what will happen come November 8th, 2016. But I can tell you what will happen in 2020. An entire generation of voters taught through Common Core State Standards will be registering to vote. And those voters will be college, career, and life ready. (Thanks, Common Core.)
* http://www.corestandards.org (all standards taken from this website