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Social studies teachers turn uncertain election into teaching opportunity

With the 2020 presidential election results still up in the air, Matthew Resnick reminded his seventh-grade U.S. HIstory students Wednesday of another disputed election — the 1876 presidential election.

“A lot of times kids are like this has never happened, how can this be real? And then you go into the history of the election of 1876,” said Resnick, a social studies teacher at Buford Middle School.

Resnick’s students are currently studying the Reconstruction Era, which ended after the 1876 election. Neither candidate received the required number of Electoral College votes, so lawmakers brokered a compromise in early 1877 to award the necessary votes to Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the end of Reconstruction in the South.

He hoped students would find comfort in the connection between 2020 and 1876, even if they couldn’t imagine not knowing who won until January.

“Because then they could be like, okay, so this has happened before. Maybe America can figure it out, and we’ll still be a country and hopefully continue to move on,” he said.

Resnick and other social studies teachers across the country were tasked with helping their students make sense of the U.S. Presidential Election as no official winner had been called before classes started Wednesday morning.

As of Wednesday night, The Associated Press projected Joe Biden will receive 264 Electoral College votes, with more states expected to announce results Thursday and later in the week.

As Resnick answered students’ questions about the election, he also checked in with how they were feeling. Some were anxious.

“This uncertainty kind of wears down on them,” he said, adding that it’s important to talk about the election. “I know that people like to know the results rather than still not know.”

Allen Robinson, a government teacher at Charlottesville High School, fielded a range of questions from students Wednesday and during a Zoom watch party Tuesday. He typically gathers in the CHS library with pizza to watch the results with students.

Students asked about the decision by the Associated Press and other outlets to call Virginia for Biden even though President Donald Trump had more votes tallied.

“We talked about how media outlets have experts who are often pretty good at what they do — making calls — but there’s nothing official about it,” he said.

Robinson said the election has given him the most opportunities to provide context for students in terms of what’s unusual or hasn’t happened before.

“To describe what is happening now, and how things have happened before and how this is not necessarily the norm is kind of key for providing context, I think, sometimes in this election more than any other,” he said.

Students had questions about the Electoral College and big picture questions about the presidency. They also wanted to know about Trump’s claim to victory overnight. During his class, they had a chance to discuss the results and their thoughts as well as research in the moment to find out more information.

“Some of the anxiety around the election that I noticed really starting in 2015 is there, and it’s of a different nature, sometimes about democracy itself now,” he said.

Robinson added that he’s seen an uptick in interest in the election as more students have gotten involved in politics or activism in the last four years.

“I have many more students who are knowledgeable and passionate about particular issues or about politics more broadly who see the potential for change and their role in it, and who see that as vitally important,” he said, adding that he’s seen that change among students across the political spectrum. “ I’ve just heard more students talk about being directly involved in policy or politics in the last few years for sure.”

Tuesday night, about 30 to 40 students in Resnick’s class gathered virtually to watch the results. Resnick said he’s also hosted debate watch parties this fall in order to help engage students.

Like Robinson’s group, one of the first questions about the results in Virginia.

Later in the night, students wondered why the votes took so long to tally, why the results weren’t clear and who Bob Good was. Republican Good defeated Democrat Dr. Cameron Webb to represent the Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“These kids, they take quizzes and they know the results immediately,” he said.

In class, he reviewed election results and local news reports, including the results of the Fifth District.

“The air was taken out of the room a little bit when they realized Cameron Webb didn’t win,” he said.

With students at home, Resnick said that brought in a different element during class discussions as the day went on.

“Kids are like, ‘Hey, the president tweeted,’” he said. “They can be participating where in schools they are not really supposed to have their cell phones out and they’re not really on the Internet.”

Katina Otey, the city school division’s chief academic officer, sent resources to teachers earlier this week about teaching the election results, including a Day After Election guide from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, as well as for supporting students and themselves.

Otey also provided advice on how teachers could acknowledge what a student is saying or feeling but stay on track with their routines.

“The need to provide safety and connection for each other and our students is paramount during these times,” she wrote.

Resnick said he didn’t have that in 2016 when he was teaching in Madison County.

“I felt more prepared today for the chaos than I was in 2016,” he said.

Overall, Resnick said he wants students to understand the process of elections and that every vote counts as well as how the different ways of voting in the last month or so will affect the timing of results.

“We have to make sure that everyone is heard from,” he said. “How I’m going to do that I’m not really sure. … Hopefully, in the days to come, I can stay rooted in making sure that all Americans have their fair voice in the election.”


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