Teaching the Election: How to Stay Nonpartisan

Staying nonpartisan doesn’t mean staying quiet.
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Editor’s note: The recommendations presented here are adapted from Teaching Tolerance’s Facebook video “Teach the Election.”

When we encourage educators to teach the election in their classes, one response we often hear is that they’re afraid to invite partisan rhetoric into their classrooms. As our national political conversation becomes increasingly toxic, it’s easy to sympathize with those who want to avoid politics altogether. But just because an issue is political, that doesn’t mean it’s partisan. And no matter what you choose, you’re making a political choice. 

When you decide not to talk about the election in your classroom, you’re letting your students know that the topics, rhetoric and policy being debated aren’t important enough to interrupt your regular class schedule to teach. 

Given that we can’t avoid making a political choice, it’s worth thinking through how you’ll talk to your students about the elections while remaining nonpartisan. Here are a few approaches to try.


Teach About the Process of Voting.

Voting is often represented as a two-step process: registering to vote and casting a ballot. But many topics we’ve come to think of as “political” can easily be discussed in a nonpartisan way as part of the voting process. For example, you might talk about legislation that dictates who can vote and how. You might talk about the districting process that determines who votes where. Or you may have a discussion about common myths that affect citizens’ attitudes toward voting. These TT resources can help facilitate those conversations.


Democracy Class

The 45-minute, classroom-ready lessons of Democracy Class are appropriate for high school students (or advanced middle school students). You can choose between lesson plans that teach students about the importance of local government, trace the history of voting rights or push back against common myths about voting. 


On Voter Suppression and Gerrymandering

Teaching the Truth About Voter Suppression and Teaching the Truth About Gerrymandering both offer recommendations for instruction and discussion. Although voter suppression and gerrymandering are often represented as partisan issues, these articles focus on nonpartisan approaches. 


Five Myths About Voting

Five Myths About Voting busts some common falsehoods your students may have heard about voting. Print and hang the poster in your classroom today.

Are you sharing TT’s voting pledge, educating voters or registering voters at your school? Share your success with us, and we’ll add you to our map!

Teach Critical and Digital Literacy Skills

Between social media and cable news, voters are being asked to accept and process new information at an unprecedented rate. The upcoming elections present students an opportunity to practice their critical and digital literacy skills—and to see how important these skills really are.

Here are a few techniques you can try.


Text-based Strategies

TT’s collection of teaching strategies offer lots of different ways to engage students in texts. Socratic Seminars, Who’s Telling It and SQ2PERs all encourage critical literacy. Try having students look at one topic—say, a local ballot initiative, or the proposal in Florida to return the right to vote to some people convicted of felonies. Give students a few different texts (for example, a news article, an infographic and an excerpt from a political speech) and have them discuss the different ways this issue is being presented to the public—and where they might stand on it. 


TT’s Digital Literacy Framework

Our Digital Literacy Framework includes classroom-ready lessons and videos you can use to talk with students about topics like “fake news,” participating in digital communities, finding reliable sources, participating in digital activism and more. You’ll even find resources for professional development to bolster your own digital literacy skills.


Use the Election to Connect Your Classes to the Real World

Often, civic participation is framed as a domain of social studies classes. But Election Day is a great time for teachers of all subjects to show students how the work they’re doing in class plays out in the real world. For example:


In Science class

Students in science courses can analyze proposed policies that affect the environment. Our lesson Analyzing Environmental Justice helps students understand how pollution disproportionately affects minoritized populations. This can help students clearly see the potential for real-world problem solving when it’s paired with a local or state policy. (Ballotpedia can help you find more information for your state.)


In Math Class

In math courses, students can practice their skills while also learning about how democracy works in their precinct. Our Do Something activity Voting in Your Town, for example, has students analyze voter registration and turnout rates in their communities.


Encourage Action

If you know our Social Justice Standards, you know that action can be the hardest step for students to take. But you can encourage students to get involved without being partisan. Here are just a few things you might try.


voting and voices pledge

Encourage students to be empowered voting advocates in their families and communities. Our Voting and Voices Pledge gives even the youngest students a way to get involved! (Pair it with our Story Corner “Having the Talk” as a means to inspire elementary students to talk with their families about voting.)


My Voice, My Voter's Guide

Let students provide not just motivation but also useful information for voters in your community. My Voice, My Voter’s Guide is a Do Something project in which students research requirements for voting in your school’s precinct and create a nonpartisan, informational guide that includes all the information voters need to cast their ballots.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways you can get involved. You can find more in the Classroom Resources and Professional Development sections of our Voting and Voices materials.

Collins is senior writer at Teaching Tolerance, and Delacroix is associate editor.