Election 2020 education teaching learning

Head of School Anne Stavney shares how Blake is supporting students in all divisions this election season as they learn about the election process, grapple with complex issues and develop the skills of critical thinking and civic engagement.

This contentious election season has come during a challenging year. As a nation we are navigating a pandemic, an ongoing reckoning about racial justice, a contested Supreme Court nomination, deep economic uncertainty and partisan dialogue. So many of us—no matter our political affiliation—are feeling the anxiety and exhaustion of 2020. While Blake has a longstanding tradition of teaching students and supporting them during presidential elections, this year presents myriad challenges for us all. As always, we have kept the student experience at the forefront of our planning and teaching.

Guiding Philosophy
As an educational institution, our responsibility is to provide the space for students to engage, discuss, reflect on and evolve their own personal and political identities and opinions while they listen to, question and seek to understand their peers as they do the same. We help them to avoid the habits of discounting and maligning that are damaging hallmarks of contemporary political discourse.

We realize that our students are continuously forming and evolving their political identities. For many students, these identities are informed primarily by what they hear at home and are connected to family identity. We also know some of our most powerful work with students involves opportunities to model and practice engaging constructively both with people who share their viewpoints and those who do not. 

Our students reflect a broad range of identities, lived experiences and political viewpoints. Blake’s mission, commitment to pluralism and core values govern our expectations for interactions both within and beyond the classroom. At the same time we hold space for all students, we can also be morally clear: Blake will not tolerate language or behavior that contradicts our commitment to pluralism and values of respect, integrity and courage. 

Developing Student Political Identity 
Last fall, we convened The Developing Student Political Identity (TDSPI) Task Force, composed of faculty and administrators from all divisions and co-chaired by Associate Head of School Anne Graybeal and Director of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement Tyneeta Canonge. We read from “Controversy in the Classroom,” “The Case for Contention” and “Safe Enough Spaces,” texts that directly address research and practice for political conversations in PK-12 and post-secondary settings.  

We convened the task force to address a key finding from Blake’s participation in the 2019 Assessment of Inclusion and Multiculturalism (AIM) survey developed by the National Association of Independent Schools. Survey responses from members of all constituent groups––employees, students, alumni, parents/guardians and trustees––revealed a perception of liberal bias in the curriculum. The same was true in the responses to our 2015 ISACS constituent survey. This challenge is not unique to Blake; around the country, public schools, independent schools, colleges and universities grapple with this same perception. 

Research has demonstrated time and again that educators are likely to identify as politically liberal, whereas students and their parents/guardians represent a more broadly distributed range of political orientations. We know, however, that a teacher’s personal political orientation does not correlate with their approach to curriculum design and instruction. While all instructional choices are inherently political in that they represent a teacher’s discernment, decisions and pedagogical approach, it is inaccurate to assume an unethical connection between a teacher’s personal beliefs and their professional practice. We have complete confidence that our faculty consistently creates curriculum aligned with Blake’s mission, commitment to pluralism and core values. In this context, a primary task force goal was to understand and anticipate the tensions that arise when students engage through the curriculum with their own political identities and with those of their peers.

2020-21 Curriculum & Activities
In all divisions, students are learning about the electoral process and civil engagement through opportunities designed to create conversation, build empathy and celebrate democracy. Teachers and advisors are drawing on established norms to guide discussion around controversial topics. 

In the Lower School, as part of the social studies curriculum in fourth and fifth grade, students are investigating our state’s immigration history, learning about Minnesota’s diverse populations and studying the branches of government and the electoral process at local, state and federal levels.

Starting in late October, all Middle School social studies students will explore voting as a process (how it’s done, voter turnout, etc.) and as a right (who has historically been able to vote and who continues to be disenfranchised). We will explore this issue both in the present and the past, as well as in other countries around the world.

We have created for Middle School and Upper School students an opt-in virtual space called Blake Politics Hub. MS and US teachers have been invited to monitor the discussion boards and a group of US students has volunteered to create content and help lead discussions. In addition, the MS and US will once again be involved in Students Voting, a statewide mock election sponsored by the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office. 

Upper School grade deans and advisors have also created programming to support in-person and Zoom conversations around the presidential and vice presidential debates, as well as the election. Students are practicing having political conversations with classmates and producing a series of recorded video conversations on a host of topics to serve as models. These will continue after the election as well. 

We have encouraged and will support students who have signed up to volunteer as election judges at various polling places. And Upper School teachers are partnering with a student advisory committee to plan for the division's tradition of viewing the inauguration address and creating opportunities for student reflection and discussion about it. 

On Election Day and beyond, we will continue to focus on our students as they respond and react to events with a broad range of ideas, perspectives and emotions.