The history of debate and civil discourse between candidates running for political office in the United States has long been held up as a pillar of our elections process and our democracy. Typically used as a means to debate policy publicly, defend positions, and appeal to voters, debates bring candidates into the same space and ask them to adhere to a set of agreed upon rhetorical rules of engagement. Over the last several presidential election cycles however, we have often witnessed debates that display a distressing abandonment of our accepted norms and expectations of civil discourse.
As the latest presidential election season gets underway, many voters are hoping to see debates that offer sound policy discussion and leave them with a strong sense of each candidates’ beliefs and positions. But we also need to be prepared for the possibility of discussions that may seem hostile, demoralizing, and confusing.
Regardless of the tenor and tone of these debates, we know that discussing them in the classroom is crucial for fostering civic engagement and critical thinking skills among students. However, navigating these discussions can be challenging. Teachers must create an environment where students feel comfortable expressing diverse opinions and engaging in respectful dialogue. It’s also vital to engage students’ media literacy skills and encourage fact-checking, and analysis of candidates' claims. By engaging in these conversations, students develop their political literacy and become active participants in the democratic process.
As the election progresses, use the following resources to help students make sense of the debates and equip them with the skills to analyze policies, communication styles, and leadership qualities.
- Fostering Civil Discourse: How to Talk About Issues that Matter
Engaging in civil discourse means bringing your mind, heart, and conscience to reflective conversations on topics that matter; it does not mean prioritizing comfort. As political discourse becomes more polarizing, use our guide to foster rich dialogue in your classroom.
- Teaching Strategy | News Article Analysis
Our current media landscape makes it more difficult than ever to differentiate news, feature, and opinion pieces published by media outlets. Use our teaching strategy to help students grasp these differences and think more critically about the information they encounter.
- Explainer | Political Polarization
This presidential race is set to be another extremely contentious and polarized contest. But it’s not the only race and exploring polarization and its effects on both the national outcome and more local elections is key to helping students understand what’s at stake in this election season. Use this explainer to investigate polarization in the US and how it’s impacting our elections and our day-to-day life.
- Teaching Strategy | 3-2-1
Presidential debates can feel long, but often move quickly from topic to topic. Use this strategy alongside video clips, transcripts, or news articles summarizing the debate to get students to think critically about the debate and identify questions they have about what was said or what a candidate is promoting.
- Teaching Strategy | Relevant or Not?
The art of debate is full of rhetorical tricks, and candidates often find ways to evade direct questions, deflect on topics they don’t want to discuss, and redirect attention from one topic to another. Use this teaching strategy along with excerpts/transcripts of debates to help students identify what candidates share that’s relevant to the questions and issues being discussed and what is not.
- PBS Learning | Explore the History & Structure of Debates
As much as adults may decry our children’s use of emoji, they offer people young and old a chance to express their feelings in today’s digital environment. In this resource, PBS explains how to leverage emoji for emotional processing in the virtual classroom.
- Better Arguments Project
“American civic life doesn’t need fewer arguments; it needs better arguments,” says The Better Arguments Project. This national initiative—a partnership of the Aspen Institute, Allstate Corporation, and Facing History and Ourselves—is designed to help Americans discuss issues that matter.
As the election season continues, we hope to continue to be a go-to resource for you for the support and materials you need to help you teach about the democratic process and the impact of elections in your classrooms and beyond.