Teaching on Election Day
by Nancy McTygue
With just less than two years of teaching under my belt, I thought I had finally figured it out. It was mid-January 1991, and after hours of reading, thinking, and planning, I finally had an engaging strategy to teach Progressivism to my 11th graders in Vacaville. I had just the right primary sources – images, carefully excerpted written sources, and political cartoons. In my mind, I had nailed this whole lesson plan thing and couldn’t wait to roll it out in class the next day.
That night, as I finished making my last minute changes to the handouts for my students, I watched the national news, which centered on a new military operation in the Middle East. Known ultimately as the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm started with a massive air and missile strike on targets in both Iraq and Kuwait. It's hard to remember this now, but in 1991, this level of US military engagement in the Middle East was significant and relatively unique.
The next morning I set out the Progressives lesson materials as my students started filing into my second period class. As my students came in, I heard them talking about the military invasion with each other. Vacaville sits next to a large military base (Travis AFB) and some of my students were even talking about their parents who were already in the Middle East – or who were scheduled to leave soon. After the bell rang, I started the lesson on the Progressives, moving ahead despite the fact that clearly it was not the topic the students cared to address. I put them into groups to analyze historical photographs of childhood labor – and they talked about the use of missiles and the likelihood of a quick US victory and the impact this would have on their families. And still I pushed on – trying to force them to understand the significance of political reform movements at the turn of the 20th Century, no matter how irrelevant that topic was to the end of the same century – in their home town and across the globe.
...as we seek to teach the past, it's important to keep an eye on the present."
I learned an important lesson that day, one that I’m sure is painfully obvious to all of you by now – that as we seek to teach the past, it’s important to keep an eye on the present. No surprise, my lesson ultimately failed that day, not because it was a poorly constructed plan, but because I failed to understand and appreciate my students’ current context. They could – and later would – learn about the Progressive movement; it just couldn’t happen on that day. They needed to take the time to discuss and think through with me and each other another historically significant day and I needed to be flexible enough to understand that.
This morning, as I watched yet another news segment on tomorrow’s election, I thought about that day – now more than two decades later. Although I am not currently teaching, I’ve gotten better at recognizing an historically significant event – and this year’s election will most likely fit the bill. Our country is polarized and the entire population is nervous. Who will win tomorrow’s election and what will happen when the results are announced? Adults are rightly concerned – and children are aware of those concerns and wonder what it will mean for their future.
So as you think about your plans for tomorrow’s classes, I encourage us all to set aside some time for our students to discuss the election results – with each other and with you. This campaign has been especially difficult for us as a diverse nation and its legacy leaves many of us unsure of the future. I’m not advocating turning history classes over to current event discussions every day – students do need to learn about the Progressive Movement at some point (maybe on Thursday?) – but building in some flexibility into your schedule would be helpful.
Finally, I wanted to make sure you had links to some of our Teach the Election resources; we’re posting three today for free on our website:
Each of them seek to put the current election cycle into historical context – something that I hope helps students and us adults both remember that our democracy has and will continue to endure, despite difficult and contentious times in our collective history.