Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 13, 2012

Elections should be a teaching moment

By Mark Heinig Jr.
Guest columnist

— It’s election time and teachable moments are everywhere!

If you’re a teacher, you’re always on the lookout for teachable moments, those special times when students are uniquely receptive to what you’re trying to teach. Those precious times occur across the curriculum.

Often, they suddenly appear without warning. You’re right in the middle of a carefully planned lesson. Your kids are well-prepared and on task, (at least, most of them are!). They are paying attention, participating in the class discussion or working on the assigned activity, be it a cooperative group project or one that requires them to work alone.

Everything is proceeding as expected when suddenly an event occurs that may redirect the lesson completely.

This is a teachable moment. It often takes you by surprise. Something happens that you didn’t anticipate. Frequently it originates with one student’s question or comment, but it can also start with the insight of a small group of students or even the thoughts of the whole class. You could ignore it, but you won’t. It offers you a rare opportunity to help your kids understand a concept or acquire a skill beyond those demanded by your lesson plan and your curriculum guide. So you adapt. You change your lesson to maximize the value of the teachable moment. Teachable moments can also originate with public events, like elections.

Before I retired, I was a junior-senior high school American history teacher for 25 years in Indiana’s public and nonpublic schools. During the two weeks preceding a general election, Indiana law, (IC 20-30-5-4), requires all public and nonpublic secondary schools, (grades 6-12), to teach an election unit to all students. The unit must include five class periods and explain characteristics of Indiana and U.S. government, the role of political parties, the actual voting process, and the citizen’s duty to vote.

Some Indiana schools often ignore this law completely or comply with it, but only partially. One of the reasons for this may be that the law isn’t specific enough. It calls for “five full recitation periods of class discussion.” How long is a full recitation period? It used to be about 50 minutes. That’s not always true now. We have more types of class schedules and schools now, and the length of a class period may vary. The law does contain an enforcement procedure, but it is vague.

When I wasn’t a teacher, I was a high school principal. I frequently needed to remind history teachers of this law and ask to see their election lesson plans. Some teachers seemed to be completely unaware of the law. Others discussed the election in their classes, but rather haphazardly. Their lessons lacked clear objectives, implementation procedures, or effective evaluation strategies. I must confess that my election lessons weren’t always the best feature of my teaching, either.

I probably wouldn’t be writing this if we were not confronting a very unique election. I’m a senior citizen, and I can’t recall another time when our government has been as paralyzed and ineffective as it has been for the last four years. Democracy can’t succeed without cooperation and compromise.

The uniqueness of this election makes it a teachable moment. All American history teachers should seize the opportunity to help their students understand how our government functions or fails to function in the face such gridlock. Parents can help by discussing their own opinions about the election with their children. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is.

You can use it to create a special learning experience for your child.

We may never encounter another teachable moment like this one again. Considering the painful political battles of the past four years, I sort of hope that we don’t!

• Mark Heinig Jr., of Kokomo, is a retired Indiana principal and teacher. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.