Teaching Around the Election: Space for Student Expression

In my last post on teaching around the election, we looked at four general strategies for helping students through the potential disruption of the 2020 elections: flexibility, acknowledgement, expression, and exploration. In this post we’re diving more deeply into the third element:  creating space for students to express their experience and ideas. 

Pedagogical Principles to Keep in Mind

While most of us have at least some experience facilitating student discussion in the classroom, controversial discussions that connect to students’ identities and substantive moral values can be difficult. Such expressive activities, however, promote student agency and help them achieve reductions in anxiety while allowing faculty to take stock of where the class is at and make informed decisions about whether and how to engage more deeply (Eyler, 2018; Eodice et al.; Darby & Lang, 2019). Expression activities can also be performed in any classroom—regardless of content or faculty expertise on the nature and causes of social disruption. If you choose to open your classroom in this way, I recommend keeping the following principles in mind:

  • Start before the elections. You might start by having smaller, related discussions prior to the elections or signaling to the class that you’re considering doing so after.
  • Be transparent about the pedagogical goals. Rather than simply springing a difficult conversation on students, be transparent and let them know why you’re doing so (e.g., relation to course content, concerns expressed by members of the class, related personal concerns that you have yourself, the teachable moment presented by our social context, etc.). 
  • Collectively articulate and agree to a set of ground rules. Setting ground rules—or reminding the class of ground rules previously set—is an excellent way to ease into difficult conversations. It can also preempt some of the behaviors or situations we hope to avoid and gives faculty a tool for calling out or constraining inappropriate comments.
  • Consider beginning with an asynchronous discussion. If done well, an asynchronous discussion can achieve the goals discussed above. It can also be used to surface key variables and inform any subsequent, synchronous discussion. The techniques listed below can be done asynchronously, synchronously, or in combination.
  • Aim for universal participation in order to maximize the discussion’s effectiveness, surface as broad a picture as possible, and minimize the potential for any student to feel shut down or shut out. The pedagogical strategies listed below allow for universal participation.

Pedagogical Strategies for Facilitating Student Expression

There are numerous ways we can help our students process their experiences through collective expression activities in our classrooms. For the sake of space, I’ll share three techniques that are easily modified, combined, and implemented. The hope is that these techniques encourage your own creativity.

    • In a Word: Give students a moment to reflect or write, and then ask them to share where they are at in just one word (or, alternatively, in one sentence). This can be done fairly quickly even in a large class by asking them to write their word in the Zoom chat or enter it into a word cloud (e.g., using PollEverywhere). This exercise can stand alone or be combined with various follow-ups, such as a straw poll asking how many in the class share feelings related to certain words, or allowing them to repeat with a second word. This collective temperature-taking can easily be riffed on or repeated next class.
    • Write, Read, Listen, & Write: One way to allow students to express and hear one another in a controlled environment with a pre-set termination is to have them write, read out loud what they’ve written, and be given a specific prompt to actively listen. Given the time it takes, this works best in smaller groups or on Canvas Discussions, but the basic technique can be modified in numerous ways. In brief, give students a specific prompt related to the elections and time and space to write a concise statement. Allow every student to share by reading (or making available) what they’ve written. (This both keeps things moving and prevents tangents.) In order to keep students from tuning out, give them a specific prompt related to listening (e.g., “listen for someone who articulates well something that you’ve also noted,” or “listen for an idea or variable that you haven’t previously heard or fully considered”). Finally, allow students individual time to debrief by writing a response to what they heard.
    • Mapping exercises: As a class, try and “map” a full range of some element of the election—emotions, political positions or responses, possible harms and benefits, what’s unique about this particular election cycle, etc. Students are paying attention, and allowing everyone to share what they’re seeing and experiencing as individuals allows everyone (including us!) to expand our view. To facilitate such map expansions, it’s best to capture the map concretely by using a Google Jamboard or Doc. (There are also free mind-mapping tools for those who want to get fancy.) Alternatively, you can map with mobile polling applications like PollEverywhere, Mentimeter, or even Zoom polling. 

In addition to organizing a specific activity allowing students to express themselves, it’s important to think through how to bring the activity to a close and transition back to class without allowing the conversation to fizzle or abruptly cut off. You might consider what to do if:

  • students are extremely active and engaged (e.g., “We need to get back to the course content, but things are going great here, so what I’d like to do is take three more minutes and…”),
  • things are tense (e.g., “I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels quite a bit of tension right now. What I think would be most productive is…”), and 
  • students don’t take to the activity (“Hopefully this helps jumpstart your thinking; why don’t you come to class next time having…”).

Expression activities like these can also function as priming for further in-class exploration—which is the topic of our next blog post. Whatever you do, keep in mind the specific goals involved in these sorts of activities: allowing students to be in a supportive space that attends to the (possibility of) social disruption, get beyond themselves, and gain an expanded perspective.