'Teaching politics is exciting – and exhausting'

The US election has dispelled notions of political apathy among young people, says modern studies teacher Michael Shanks
5th November 2020, 11:12am


'Teaching politics is exciting – and exhausting'

My Students Are Excited To Learn About The Us Election - The Battle Between Joe Biden & Donald Trump, Says This Modern Studies Teacher

"Sir, can I keep my phone on my desk just to check in?"

"Check in with what?" (This teacher's eyebrow is raised sharply.)

"Just making sure we don't miss Michigan, sir."

There are a lot of things that bring a proud smile to a teacher's face, but in modern studies none more than the sight of students who are fascinated and excited by democracy in action.

For those not familiar with modern studies, a subject unique to Scotland, it focuses on building knowledge and understanding of contemporary political and social issues at a local, national and international level.

We've been covering the USA for weeks, learning about the political system, ways citizens can participate and reasons why some groups are underrepresented in politics. The fact that we are living through undoubtedly the most interesting presidential election in their lifetime reminded me just how important a subject this is.

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A US teacher's view: Even the pupils are hyper-politicised now

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Quick read: Why debating helps with much more than public speaking

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We sometimes forget that, for all the talk of young people being apathetic and uninterested, they are, in fact, like most of us, more likely to just be confused by it all. Lift the veil on political processes and electoral systems and young people are free to be excited by the twists and turns, and able to understand what it all means. It's then that you realise young people aren't apathetic at all - they're switched on, curious and hopefully ready to participate themselves in voting in just a few years' time.

Teaching about the US election

Being a modern studies teacher during all of this is exciting and exhausting at the same time. The US election joins a long line of constantly updating topics - terrorism, poverty, Brexit, human rights, coronavirus. Few other subjects need to update their lesson plans an hour before they are taught based on breaking news, or require a knowledge to field questions from excitable young people who saw a Snapchat about something Donald Trump said 15 minutes ago.

modern studies US presidential election Biden Trump

But that is why I love teaching this subject. With a dynamic curriculum focused on young people becoming active citizens and gaining a range of skills relevant to our modern world, it's never boring and it's always relevant (see the above image from my classroom). Perhaps the most important of these skills right now is critical literacy - helping young people to separate truth from fake news and know that what they are reading or watching is accurate.

When a student enters the classroom visibly agitated, any teacher will try to figure out why. You may think it unusual for the root of that mood to be a tweet from the president of the United States, but it's not in a modern studies classroom. Our subject has something truly distinct and valuable to offer.

Time for a nap. It's been a long couple of days - and it's not over yet.

Michael Shanks is a modern studies teacher at Park Mains High School in Erskine, Renfrewshire, in Scotland

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