Helping Students Make Sense of the 2020 Election: iCivics Shows the Way

Helping Students Make Sense of the 2020 Election: iCivics Shows the Way
(Jim Bourg/Pool via AP)

With America just hours away from what many regard as one of the most pivotal elections in its history, how can teachers help students make sense of it all? One place they can go is iCivics, an online civics-education resource founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. 

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The iCivics election headquarters offers a wide-range of nonpartisan, digital resources designed for classroom use. These include its well-known interactive games, such as Cast Your Vote and Win the White House; lesson plans like Popular v. President that looks at the role of the Electoral College in our presidential elections, a 2020 Candidates’ Bio guide, infographics featuring eye-catching images on key election issues, and more.

For students closer to voting age, the iCivics Students Power Elections Guide offers a complete overview of the election process, from voter registration to the different ways in which a ballot can be cast.

“Elections are the backbone of our democracy—the vehicle through which ‘We the People’ make our voices known and exercise our power to make sure that the government works for us,” says iCivics executive director Louise Dubé.

Dubé says that Justice O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 “to solve the problem of inequitable and uninspiring civic education and cultivate new generations of thoughtful and active citizens.” The organization has made some genuine strides toward achieving that goal.

Nearly 200,000 teachers have introduced iCivics resources to more than 5 million students in all 50 states, making it the “largest provider of civics curriculum in the nation.” More than 7.2 million students each year play iCivics games.

iCivics offers hundreds of free, dynamic, and standards-aligned lesson plans for K-12 students that teach “the fundamentals of how American democracy and its institutions work,” Dubé states. A solid grounding in American civics produces young people who can “discuss controversial subjects” in a thoughtful, “fact-based” way and “are more likely to vote” in elections and also get involved in their communities.

She points to evidence of a “renewed interest in civics” nationally, including the results of a recent poll conducted by Frank Luntz that found that a majority of Republicans and Democrats think civic education presents the most promising path to “heal this country’s divides.” Dubé also notes that 80 pieces of legislation promoting civic education have been introduced in state legislatures around the country. In Congress, U.S. Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Tom Cole introduced bipartisan legislation that Dubé says “would authorize the Secretary of Education to allocate $1 billion to states and nonprofits working to improve civic education.”

At a time when a yawning ideological chasm exists in the country, iCivics reports that “an astonishing 95% of teachers” who use its materials call iCivics a “trusted and non-partisan resource” that can “foster civil conversations about current events.”

Additional iCivics resources include WebQuests, which provide information on individual subjects; DBQuest, which guides students through primary-source documents; and the Drafting Board, which walks students through each phase of writing an argumentative essay.

iCivics’s state portals provide event calendars, links to in-state civics-education partners, and lesson plans. Ohio’s portal, for example, offers lesson plans that compare and contrast the U.S. and Ohio constitutions. Teachers looking to discuss controversial topics can download teacher guides and watch videos that Dubé says will help ensure that students “see disagreement as an opportunity to learn” rather than “a form of conflict.”

Under Dubé’s leadership, iCivics has continued to expand its reach. It founded CivXNow, a coalition of 139 major organizations, universities, and academics working to bolster civic education in the classroom.

The Educating American Democracy project, another iCivics venture, is a bipartisan network of nearly 150 scholars and educators working to achieve excellence in K-12 civic and history education. A roadmap that gives guidance on content and instructional strategies will be published next year.

“Teaching young people about political institutions—and their roles in them—is critical for repairing our country,” Dubé believes, and iCivics stands at the forefront of that effort.

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