SCHOOLS | October 31, 2020
Ms. Jamie Perry is teaching social science for the first time during a presidential election year, and she says that her seventh- and eighth-grade students at Stone Scholastic Academy fixated on something that she wasn’t expecting: the ages of the two candidates.
At 77 and 74 years old, both candidates are much older than many of her students’ grandparents, which prompted discussion about what the age should be for a presidential candidate. Her students identified 45 to 55 as an ideal range that balances experience and relatability.
Beyond that, talking about the election hasn’t always been easy. With remote learning blurring the lines between school and home like never before, she notes that her students have shown some reluctance to talk about the election’s key issues—from the pandemic to immigration to voting laws.
With the rise of social media, Stone teacher Ms. Mariam Saba believes that her sixth-grade students are also dealing with an onslaught of political information in the form of advertisements and other campaign materials. While she’s used their observations as the jumping off point to talk about the Graduated Income Tax Amendment in Illinois and other relevant issues, she’s also taught her students about identifying media bias and working with different types of sources.
Even though she teachers World History, every Friday she focuses on current events. She uses a variety of texts—from CNN 10 to TED-Ed to Time Magazine articles—as the core of an inquiry-based model where students have the agency to find the answers to their questions and then share what they’ve learned in a group discussion.
“When my students are analyzing different texts, I always preface their work with questions like ‘how do we identify media bias?’ and ‘how can we formulate our own opinions?’” said Ms. Saba. “I also want them to remember that they shouldn’t be looking at one source as the only source on a particular topic.”
In line with the district’s priorities for social science instruction and civic life, students are then expected to synthesize what they’ve uncovered to demonstrate their knowledge and form an argument on a relevant topic. Their culminating writing assignment will require them to make a case for either keeping or abolishing the electoral college.
With the election just a few days away, both teachers say their classrooms are often simply a place for students to talk about how the election is making them feel. They plan to keep it that way, especially on the day after the election. The district’s election guidance includes recommendations for social-emotional learning and creating supportive classroom environments regarding the election.
“My students know the impacts of what is going on around them, and sometimes I feel as if they think they’re in the center of this whirlwind,” said Ms. Perry. “They’re dealing with fatigue, isolation, and other social-emotional issues that go beyond what we can see through their screens.”
Ms. Perry believes that these complicated emotions are a testament to how knowledgeable her students are about the realities and stakes of the election. They know that people in other parts of the country feel very differently about certain issues than they do. They know the pandemic has been devastating. And they know the battleground states to pay attention to on election night.
Because of this, she’s been deliberate about pushing her instruction beyond the limits of only being for entertainment or to help her students memorize concepts; instead, her approach is meant to illuminate the power of the democratic process.
“When students realize their voice has power in their community, it’s a lightbulb moment for them,” said Ms. Perry. “I want them to understand that elections are powerful and they can participate in them right now by being informed.”
Like many teachers, she’s leading a mock election, but hers goes further than simply being an illustration—the winning candidates will have the opportunity to meet with school administration and staff to discuss ways to improve remote learning based on themes that they develop with the help of their peers.
The district’s social science priorities emphasize the idea of centralizing student agency within school communities. It also focuses on integrating core disciplines and is rooted in cultural relevance. Students in Ms. Saba’s class have been forming connections with a book they are reading in their language arts class—Seedfolks—by thinking about how each of its main characters would vote in this year’s election.
With Stone being one of the district’s most racially diverse schools, Ms. Perry has devoted part of her instruction to helping her students discuss themes of social justice and racial equality. While she knew they had a strong grasp of the current state of these issues, she felt they could benefit from a deeper understanding of their historical contexts. Thus, her eighth-grade students read Stamped, which follows different ideologies from America’s founding to the present.
“Providing my students with a text that connects past events that they may have otherwise learned about in isolation paints the reality of what our country has been through in the past 300 years and how it resonates today,” said Ms. Perry. “As a White teacher who is teaching mostly students of color, amplifying a book written by two Black men is important because their knowledge and perspective is what needs to be taught.”
Even though she teaches World History, Ms. Saba also tries to show her students a more complete picture of history without reducing it to a chronological series of events or a set of facts for students to memorize. For example, she plans to connect her students’ current interest with the Supreme Court with the Code of Hammurabi and the types of government in Ancient Greece later in the school year.
Teaching at Stone, which has a large immigrant student population, is special for her because she relates to her students as a CPS graduate and the daughter of immigrants herself. And while she knows that they probably won’t remember every source they analyzed or video they watched on CNN 10, she hopes they leave her class with a skillset that prepares them to be civically engaged in the future.
“My students are all so excited about turning 18 and being able to vote, and I joke with them: ‘You better come back when you’re 18 and tell me that you voted!” said Ms. Saba. “It’s exciting, and I just hope that they become active citizens wherever they are.”
Interested about how CPS is engaging students around this year’s important elections? Click here to learn more and make sure to follow the district’s Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement on Twitter and Instagram at @CPSCivicLife.