Nothing should surprise me these days, but I was indeed shocked when I heard a prominent NBA player say, “nobody taught us about voting.” While I apologize for not remembering exactly who made such a candid admission to camera, the declaration isn’t much different from the sentiments expressed by former NFL all-star Brandon Marshall or Lebron James. As an educator, I work hard to hear students and take what they say seriously.
Should this question be interpreted literally? Systemic racism, narrowly standardized curriculum, and deprivation are the ingredients baked into the impoverished educational experience consumed by far too many American children, yet still I wonder, is it possible that kids are not being taught something as fundamental as the importance of voting? Are we so racist that our educational system is deliberately disenfranchising “other people’s children” from even minimal access to participatory democracy? Even if a child never encounters a decent teacher in twelve years of schooling, are the social studies textbooks so shitty and bowdlerized that voting isn’t mentioned? How can an American not know about voting?
Perhaps I am overreacting. However, the highly visible actions of NFL and NBA players on and off the court suggest otherwise. They are engaged in an attempt to right a wrong and increase voter participation. This accompanies efforts to educate players and their fans about how and why to vote.
Whenever faced with a societal challenge, upheaval, or shift, I instinctively ask, “How are educators responding?” What can each of us do to remediate this disempowerment crisis?
It is a cataclysmic failure of teaching if one American youngster leaves school without understanding their rights as a citizen, doesn’t know how to vote, or thinks that their vote does not matter. Around 30% of US millennials think democracy is absolutely essential.
What do do?
Between now and November 3rd, it is imperative that every teacher in every school reminds every student that their grownups need to be registered to vote and vote in the upcoming election!
I understand that some of you are afraid of being accused of indoctrinating children, but you could not be more mistaken. Developing citizens is a primary responsibility of teaching. Nothing is more important.
You are not telling children who their grownups should vote for (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Being employed as an educator is not contingent on surrendering your basic rights. Sustaining democracy is your job. Whether you like it or not, education is an inherently political act.
OK, some of you scaredy cats are still afraid that someone will look askance at you if you remind fellow citizens to vote. I get it. Therefore, I have another suggestion for how you can change the world and meet your obligations as an educator.
Embrace democracy in your classroom. Every day between now and November 3rd (and hopefully long after) have students in your classes vote on something. Every day, regardless of the subject you happen to teach. Model democracy. Practice democracy. (resources below)
Read: Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore (The Atlantic)
There is one more thing you can do.
You need to vote. That’s the very least you can do. Participating in the process would be even better, but voting will suffice. In any jurisdiction teachers represent the largest employee group. That is true at the village, city, state, or national level. If teachers were to vote in their own self-interest, they would change the world.
Remember what my mentor and great champion of democratic education Deborah Meier preaches, “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”
Shaquille O’Neal reveals he just voted for the first time (Yahoo News – October 8, 2020)
Chris Paul: More than 90 percent of the league is now registered to vote (Yahoo News – October 4, 2020)
Reports: Just 20% of eligible NBA players voted in last election (NBC Sports – August 31, 2020)
Doc Rivers: NBA players will get registered to vote in the bubble (USA Today – August 29, 2020)
Getting Black communities to vote is personal for LeBron James, other NBA stars: “We’ve seen our voices muted our whole lives” (USA Today – September 20, 2020)
Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore (The Atlantic – October 2018)
The troubling charts that show young people losing faith in democracy (World Economic Forum – December 1, 2016)
How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’ (NY Times – November 29, 2016)
- Kids Voting USA Project
- Every Kid Votes (mock election)
- Teaching Voting Rights Toolkit (Color of Change)
- Voting and Voices Classroom Resources (Teaching Tolerance)
- Teaching Voting Rights in 2020 (Zinn Education Project)
- 9 Ways To Teach about the Election: A Social Justice Approach (Anti-Defamation League)
- Who Gets to Vote? Teaching About the Struggle for Voting Rights in the United States (Zinn Education Project)
- The Election Collection – An Educational Guide to the US Elections (PBS)
- High School Lesson Plan: To Vote or Not to Vote? (PBS)
- New Lesson Plan: High School Voter Registration (League of Women Voters)
- League of Women Voters Collection of Classroom Resources
- A Documents-Based Lesson on the Voting Rights Act (Civilrightsteaching.org)
- What Our Students Should Know About the Struggle for the Ballot — but Won’t Learn from Their Textbooks (Zinn Education Project)
- NOW with Bill Moyers. For Educators. Voting classroom resources
- League of Women Voters News Clips of Young Voter Action
- More than a Vote
- NEA Election Guide
- AFT Election Guide
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the author of Twenty Things to Do with a Computer – Forward 50, co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.
2 thoughts on “An Urgent Plea to Teachers”
Thank you for this. Do you have recommended reads for thinking through philosophy of how and what to present to elementary students in Social Studies? I feel like it doesn’t get as much attention as science and I need to educate myself. I’m not looking for a packaged curriculum, looking to enlighten myself.
Sorry for the delay and thanks for your kind words.
I’m a big fan of this book. The first part is specifically about the Rosa Parks myth, but the second half is how to teach history.
This is another fun book for project-based social studies.
Some of the sites included in this blog post have lots of other social studies ideas too.
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