The 2020 presidential election is fast approaching. Politics are always hotly disputed, but this election seems extraordinary. In addition, the COVID pandemic and the higher than usual use of mail-in ballots add another dimension to the election process. Observers note that the results of the election may not be known on Election Day, but rather only after all ballots are counted in the days and weeks that follow.

In a heated political atmosphere it can be challenging for students to engage in meaningful civil conversations about the United States and its political future. One entry point to encouraging civil discourse is for students to begin with an analysis of personally held values. Most often, we think of values in connection with our personal lives. Values also play an important role in our civic lives and influence our political beliefs.

This exercise allows students to consider how different people prioritize and even define their personally held values in different ways. After the “Determine Individual Values” activity, students explore the positions of presidential candidates and assess how their own values and beliefs align with those of the candidates. The lesson includes an extension for a homework assignment and subsequent class discussion that has students research a key issue facing the United States and its role in the presidential campaign. The sources for the extension help students examine an issue in greater detail and develop source analysis skills.

Note to Teachers

Before you begin this lesson, you may want to review our resource guide, Teaching about Controversial Issues: A Resource Guide. It is important to establish guidelines before beginning this lesson. You may also find it helpful to reach out to parents beforehand to let them know how you plan to approach this topic impartially and respectfully.

This lesson focuses on the candidacies of President Trump and Vice President Joe Biden. You may choose to allow students to explore the candidacies of other candidates as well.

Note on Remote Learning

This lesson can be completed in a remote learning environment. We recommend doing a class video session to introduce each of the activities and review instructions. For the discussion of how Covid-19 is affecting the 2020 election, the instructor can lead a virtual class discussion in which students brainstorm out loud while the instructor records students’ ideas on a (virtual) whiteboard. Alternatively, students could brainstorm together in small-group chat sessions or virtual discussion groups. For the Prioritizing Values activity, instructors can provide students with a copy of a Google slide that allows them to organize and rank the values. A class video session to discuss their rankings could follow. If this part of the lesson is done in advance, instructors could collate the rankings in a spreadsheet, share it with the class, and then lead a virtual discussion on the students’ rankings. Students can complete the Candidates’ Positions graphic organizer individually, and then instructors can reconvene the class for a virtual discussion of their findings. Students can complete Researching in Greater Depth and the Source Analysis handout individually or as part of a homework assignment. Finally, instructors can lead a virtual class discussion to conclude the lesson.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Assess the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the 2020 election.
  • Identify and prioritize the values that shape their personally held beliefs.
  • Explore the presidential candidates’ positions on key policy issues.
  • Gather evidence from news articles and public opinion polls to analyze an issue and its role in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Handouts

In the Classroom

1. Set the Stage

Pose the question to students: “How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the 2020 election?” Have students, individually or in pairs, brainstorm what they know or have heard. Ask students to share their reactions.

  • How has the pandemic affected the process of holding an election? 
  • How has it affected the candidates’ campaigns? 
  • How do students or their family members plan to cast their vote? (ex. in-person on election day, in-person early voting, mail-in voting)

You may want to show students the video “How to Vote During a Pandemic” from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Emphasize to students that although the pandemic has affected the election, it remains a contest about values and policies.

2. Determine Individual Values

Ask students, “Why do people disagree about policy?” Invite students to share their responses. Inform students that they will explore how values shape opinions about public policy.

Next, prepare for the Prioritizing Values activity by distributing all ten Choices value cards or the Google slide to each student so that everyone has the following cards in front of them:

  • Community
  • Cooperation
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Security
  • Self-reliance
  • Stability

Ask students to rank the values in order of importance to them as individuals, emphasizing that this is about examining students’ personal values when it comes to political leadership. Remind students that the order of other students’ value cards should not influence their own ordering of values.

You may wish to do this activity in advance and have students record the order of their values, collect students’ responses, and enter their rankings on a spreadsheet in order to review class responses all together.

Next, bring the class back together to discuss this task. What was easy or difficult for students in prioritizing these values? You may want to ask for a couple of volunteers to share their lists. Ask students which values they found easiest to prioritize. Which were more difficult? On what basis did they make their decisions? Did others see it differently? 

Did different students define a particular value differently? Remind students that differing definitions of a particular value is one reason why making collective political decisions about public policy is not always easy. 

Ask students to consider what values and skills they consider necessary for U.S. presidential candidates. Are there specific viewpoints or policies that students would want a candidate to prioritize? 

3. Identify Key Issues

Tell students that they are going to identify the points of difference between the ideas of the candidates. Divide the class into groups of three or four and distribute the Candidates’ Positions graphic organizer. Assign each group one of the media sources below and tell them to use it to complete their graphic organizer. (Students assigned the BBC as a media source will have to view two webpages.) Have the groups choose six issues and record the position of each candidate. Alternatively, you could choose the six issues to assign to the groups. 

Media Sources

  1. BBC: Donald Trump policies: Where does the president stand on key issues?
    BBC: Joe Biden: Where does Joe Biden stand on key issues?
  2. Reuters: Where Biden and Trump stand on key issues
  3. AP: Trump vs. Biden: Where they stand on health, economy, more

4. Share Findings 

Have groups share their findings about the candidates’ positions with the class. On what issues did they find the greatest amount of disagreement between the candidates? Were there issues where the candidates had similar viewpoints or proposed similar approaches? Overall, what do students think are the most important issues at stake in the 2020 election? Where does each candidate stand on these issues?

Next, ask students to reflect on their own values and how they ranked these values earlier in the class period. Do the issues that students identify as top priorities align with the priorities of either or both of the candidates? In what ways? Which candidate do students think would best represent their values? Are students familiar with any other political parties or candidates whose values align more closely with their own? When it comes to the effects of Covid-19 on the election, which values do students think are most important for a president to have to deal with the pandemic?

Note: You may choose to end the lesson after the class-wide discussion of the candidates’ positions. The next section extends the lesson further with a homework assignment that asks students to research in greater depth one key issue from the 2020 election.

5. Research in Greater Depth

Tell students that for homework they will conduct further research into one major issue or policy debate surrounding this election. Have students choose from the following list. Encourage students to choose the issue they are most interested in researching in greater depth, or, alternatively, the issue they feel they know the least about but would like to learn more.

  • Climate Change
  • Foreign Policy
  • Immigration
  • Movements for Racial Justice
  • Debate over Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett
  • Voting Rights and Security
  • Covid’s Effects on the Election

Distribute to students the sources for their chosen topic and the “Source Analysis” handout and review the instructions. Additionally, you may wish to share the supplementary video resources at the bottom of the page with students.

After students have completed the Source Analysis handout as homework, you may wish to lead the class in a discussion. Have students share some of their findings from their research into their chosen issue. What did they learn? What did they find most interesting or important? How did what they learned change/affect their views on the 2020 election or the presidential candidates? Where do the candidates stand on those issues? Encourage students to reflect on the “Individual Values” part of the lesson. Which values do they think are especially important to the issue they chose to research in greater depth? How so and why? Which candidate do students think would best represent those values? Are students familiar with any other political parties or candidates who represent those values more than Trump and Biden? After researching the candidates and issues, do students still stand by their original values rankings? If so, why, and if not, what has changed and why?

Extra Challenge

1. Analyze a Policy Debate

Ask students to use the internet to find two editorials or opinion articles that provide different viewpoints on the issue they researched for their Source Analysis handout. You may wish to review with students the differences between news articles and editorials/opinion pieces. Encourage students to choose editorials/opinion articles from major online news media sources, newspapers, or magazines/journals.

Students should note where the editorial/opinion piece was published and, if possible, briefly research the author of the editorial/opinion piece and provide relevant background information (their job, expertise, political affiliation, etc.). Have students summarize the arguments of each editorial/opinion article and note at least three pieces of evidence that they use to support their arguments. Then have students analyze the policy/issue debate: How are their arguments different? Do the authors emphasize different values when making their arguments? Do they use different types of evidence? Do they have different objectives? Why do students think the authors have different perspectives/opinions on the issue?

2. Historical Analysis

Ask students to research one historical presidential campaign and the candidates in contention that year. Students may choose an election from any time period. Have students present the similarities and differences of their chosen historical campaign and the 2020 presidential campaign.

Additional Video Resources

Vox Video: How voting by mail could save the US election

New York Times Video: What’s the Problem With Vote-by-Mail? Hint: It’s Not Fraud

Vox Video: How some US states make it harder to vote

Al Jazeera Video: How has COVID-19 changed the US election campaign?

Bloomberg Video: How Will Climate Change Affect the 2020 Election?

Vox Video: What the 2020 US election means for climate change

ABC News Video: Trump vs. Biden on the issues: Racial justice

ABC News Video: Can Black Lives Matter protests make a difference in the ballot box this year?

CBS News Video: Comparing Trump and Biden’s immigration policies

Los Angeles Times Video: Biden and Trump offer Latino voters different visions of America — and of each other

PBS Video: How the pandemic has complicated these immigrants’ path to citizenship

CBS News Video: What Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination means for the 2020 election

NBC News Video: Trump, Biden Debate Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court Nomination

BBC News Video: What impact will the US election have on foreign policy?

Reuters Video: Trump vs. Biden on foreign policy

                                                                                 Photo by League of Women Voters of California (CC BY 2.0)

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