By Laurel White
UW–Madison School of Education faculty, programs, and alumni have been featured in several stories this fall about how educators are approaching teaching about elections amid heightened political polarization and scrutiny on teachers.
Diana Hess, dean of the School of Education and an expert on civic education, offered her insight on the challenges of the current political moment in an in-depth cover story from the Capital Times.
“People often say, ‘Well I want the schools in my community to reflect my views, like I want them to literally be a mirror of my views,’” Hess said. “We shouldn’t want that. We should want the schools to be a place where young people are learning how to make decisions about important questions for which there are multiple and competing answers.”
The Cap Times story, which ran the day after the election, also featured insight from Jeremy Stoddard, professor and faculty chair of the secondary education program in the School of Education. The story highlighted one of Stoddard’s recent research projects, an interactive teaching tool called PurpleState. PurpleState allows students to step into the role of political consultant by engaging with real world data and creating a media campaign. The simulation aims to illuminate the inner workings of political messaging and promote a deeper understanding of some of the reasons behind political polarization.
In the story, Stoddard spoke about PurpleState’s learning outcomes.
“When (students) see an ad or when they see a news story in their Instagram feed or wherever they get it from, they’re much more conscious of, why are they seeing it?” Stoddard explained. “They’re asking those questions, why is it showing up?”
Suzanne Eckes, the Susan S. Engeleiter Professor of Education Law, Policy, and Practice in the School of Education, also offered her expertise on laws surrounding educators’ free speech rights in the classroom. As the story mentions, Eckes spoke about the issue in a session at the Teaching About the 2022 Elections conference, which was hosted at UW–Madison in September by the School of Education’s office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE).
Stoddard and his work were also featured in a Wisconsin State Journal story, posted on Nov. 22, about teaching about politics and elections.
“With schools we have the opportunity to combat some of the things that lead to polarization,” Stoddard said in that story.
Both the Cap Times and State Journal stories also featured two School of Education alumni, Casey Farner and Luke Piwoni, who are currently working as high school teachers in Wisconsin. Farner and Piwoni offered insights and examples from recent classroom experiences.
Piwoni told the Cap Times “the volume is turned up a little bit in politics” since he started teaching 15 years ago. He said that has increased his focus on the issues and getting to know his classroom before potentially heated conversations.
“You’ll know if certain issues are really, really turned up, then you’ve just got to take a step back for a minute, think about how we’re going to approach this where we can actually have a good conversation and at least bring up multiple perspectives,” Piwoni said. “Then the students can then take that information and determine if they agree with certain things, disagree with them, or if they’ve got a better solution.”
Farner told the State Journal his students have “done a great job just being grounded in remembering that they have a voice, they’re going to have a voice, and their one vote means just as much as my one vote, as much as their neighbor’s vote.”
“And I think that’s powerful for them,” he said.
Hess was also featured on WKOW’s “Capital City Sunday” in September. She spoke about the value of high-quality teaching about elections.