Teaching the Election Process: Units and Ideas from Educators
By Kelby Zenor, Rubicon International
There are moments in the classroom when the curriculum must be impacted by the outside world. In the United States, election years require us to teach about the election process and help students make meaning of the bombardment of issues and information they get from watching television, talking at the dinner table, and debating with classmates at recess.
There hasn’t been an election quite like this, and students are talking more and more about what is happening in the news. For those of us who have watched elections come and go, we sometimes forget that this may be the first election our students will remember, or vote in. As I read through the Beloit Mindset, which gives us perspective on the students heading off to college this year, I am struck by a few of the items.
For current High School Graduates:
1. A Bush and a Clinton have always been campaigning for something big.
2. Vladimir Putin has always been calling the shots at the Kremlin.
3. Each year they’ve been alive the U.S. population has grown by more than one million Latinos.
We must consider our students’ world view when teaching about the election process. If we are teaching elementary students, we are assuming they don’t remember much of the previous elections and this is going to be their first major memory of a presidential election. For our high schoolers, some of them will be stepping into a voting booth or sending in their ballot for the first time. Helping both groups of students understand this process is important to shape them into responsible members of their communities.
Below, we asked a few teachers to share how they taught election units in years past, if they will adjust their curriculum in any way during an election year, and what engages their students in the election process.
Making Teens Smarter than the News
TROY CARTER – GASTON DAY SCHOOL, NC
I am updating my material to deal with the 2016 election. On the most basic level, the items there are being updated (we will be predicting 2016 rather than 2012 outcomes obviously), but there are a few conceptual content changes as well.
While the 2016 campaign has obviously challenged some of our views on the media and campaign rhetoric, I think it also calls for increased nuance in understanding campaign finance. In 2012 when I was writing that unit, we thought that SuperPACs were going to be the driving force in presidential politics, but the relative success of the Trump campaign challenges some of that. The largest change for my emphasis, though, in teaching both last year and this year, is going to be trying to understand the coalitions that exist within political parties. Both parties have seen factions within them lately that are important to understand. That a faction within a party can define that party’s tone and agenda is important for political novices to understand, lest they believe that all Republicans or all Democrats sound the same.
As far as student engagement goes, election years help! With the appearance of raised stakes, students are more likely to be politically aware which allows me to bring in current news as teaching fodder or examples. That said, we all suffer political fatigue in election years so I feel that true engagement has to come from challenge and a feeling as though learning/classwork is rewarding. While I know that students will initially engage because of the adrenaline of election season, my hope is that we maintain that engagement by using theory and data to debunk conventionally held believes and critically receive information from the media. Nothing engages teenagers quite like being smarter than the news.
Learning Activities that Excite
Nicole Johnston – Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child, NJ
Course: Social Studies
Unit: Campaigns and Elections
Click on the unit to check it out!
I focus a lot on creating engaging activities that will hook my students. Here are a few favorites:
- An activity on the electoral college so students can differentiate between electoral votes and popular vote. This is a game I started playing with students where we roll dice and they see if their candidates win both the electoral vote and popular vote. Some people compete in groups of 3 to show what would happen with a third party candidate, some compete in groups of 2.
- We will also watch one of the presidential debates on one side of the board, then have TodaysMeet running on the other side of the board so students can discuss the debate.
- With my class last year, we created a Hunger for the Power Board aka Hunger Games. All the pictures of the candidates (Tributes) were on the board. Anytime someone dropped out, we moved the picture to the “Fallen” section of the board. This not only engaged my students at the time, but the entire school. With that interest already built, I think students will be very engaged.
Capitalizing on Student Interest
David Nesbitt – Washington Jesuit Academy, DC
I made a few modifications to the unit to reflect an extra project we will be completing this year in social studies (having students make their own tv ad). As far as changes to fit the current election, my students did a lot of background on primaries last year, since this year’s contest was so close, well covered, and interesting. I would also say that I find it harder to create balance in class discussions this year; all but a few of my students are supporting one candidate, so trying to get them to appreciate both sides of an issue has been more of a challenge this year than in years past. Obviously the tone of the campaign has students both more engaged and passionate, but also critical of the candidates and the process than in years past. Whatever else you might think, this election has definitely engaged students!
Making it Real
Debbie Crews – Decatur Heritage Christian Academy, AL
Though I use this unit every year to teach the election process, this year I will definitely be bringing the REAL presidential race into our discussions & encouraging the students to be monitoring (with their family) what is going on nationally.
My students love EVERYTHING about this unit!!! I think they especially love creating campaign slogans and various forms of advertising…we even “tape” commercials and watch them if that’s what they choose to purchase with their campaign cash! They love being a part of a campaign team and having very specific tasks to try to help their candidate win the election. Our principal helps us make this unit something our students really work hard for…he allows the winning team (both president & Vice President) to be “principal & vice principal” of the day!
Reading through the Elections
Rachel Timberlake – South Harrison Community School Corporation, IN
With the unit as is, I’ll probably supplement with materials from Scholastic and NEWSELA with current articles as I see fit and tie those in with our reading stations. I don’t actually do this unit in November during the general election, but may end up doing a mock election for Trump and Clinton to see how our class results compare to the real ones. (I would do the class election later in the year for the students to elect a class president.)
Students love to talk about the election. We actually read a short article from Scholastic today – 5th graders have plenty of opinions on the candidates! Last year we tracked the primaries using Scholastic, and created a bulletin board to keep track of who was still in the race.
Bringing in the Soft Skills
Jennifer Branchflower – Lake Tahoe School, CA
I do not see any changes to my unit given the current election cycle. I intentionally put into my class a lot of up front learning about the importance of civil discourse and we practice it with activities that are not as controversial or emotional but still require students voicing their opinions. For example, students may debate over whether dogs or cats are better pets. Additionally, I have students argue a different view point than their own. I anticipate that this season will simply require lots of reminders that we need to speak to each other respectfully.
I expect students to engage fully with this topic. Already they know a lot, and I have overheard discussions about the candidates and their views already although we have not started this unit yet.