My colleagues and I have designed a timely and dynamic presidential elections unit that is firing up future voters in sixth grade. First, teachers introduced students to the history of presidential campaigns in the United States, focusing on the role of political parties and the media in recent years. Next, students interviewed three adult family members to elicit major issues of concern in the presidential election of 2012. Analyzing our survey results to determine major issues for voters, students in each sixth grade history class worked in cooperative groups researching party positions on major issues such as the economy and jobs, taxes and government spending, health care and education, national security and foreign policy, immigration, the environment, and more. They have watched and analyzed the televised debates as well as using party websites, library reference websites, and other media. The focus throughout has been on issues and party platforms rather than personalities and individual candidates.
New working groups have been formed in each class, as students move from being non-partisan researchers to campaign managers for one of four parties: Democrat, Republican, Green, and Libertarian. Running a “political campaign,” students will work in cooperative groups to create a candidate stump speech, party platform brochure, visual campaign advertisement, and campaign video. Each item will present a positive view of the group’s party platform and candidate for president, without denigrating other parties. Setting up campaign tables in Middle School hallways, political party campaign groups will present their campaign media to Middle School “voters” as the Middle School holds a realistic mock election run by the entire Middle School history department on Election Day, November 6. By focusing on issues, research, and identification of media’s role in the election process, teachers and students alike are becoming more active and informed citizens.
Families have been involved since the beginning of this project, providing supplemental understandings and personal insights for their children. In my book, Think, Care, Act: Teaching for a Peaceful Future, I have described the elections issue research process in detail, and I emphasize that family involvement is key to the success of the project. Students see their teachers, classmates, and adults at home engaged in the civic process.
Throughout the process we have focused on the following essential questions:
1. How can citizens become involved in the election process?
2. What are the important issues of the election?
3. What news and internet sources offer balanced information? What is the role of campaign advertising in an election?
a. Where do citizens become informed about an election?
b. How do citizens determine if a source is unbiased?
c. What is propaganda?
4. What does civil discourse look like and sound like? Why is it important in society?
Several resources have been helpful in the course of this project, including party platforms from party web pages. Teachers have identified websites with content at readable grade levels to introduce the issues, but students are eagerly venturing out of their comfort zones to understand the complexities. They bring articles and web links to the attention of their peers and teachers daily.
As we made the transition from being nonpartisan researchers to role playing the campaign staffs of one of four political parties, we analyzed videos of historical campaigns as well as a set of campaign ad spoofs to discuss the power of graphics, jingles, slogans, and video-production techniques to change public opinion.
In our classes, we have the opportunity to help students develop the ability to think critically and engage in respectful civil discourse about presidential election issues. Rather than focusing on political personalities and partisanship, we can aim to stimulate intelligent and thoughtful participation in the political process. In the short term, we can research party positions and the media’s role in electoral processes. In the long term, we can pique students’ interest in becoming informed citizens who vote responsibly and participate in their communities. Seize the time to engage your students in the political process, whether you have days or weeks to devote to this crucial process.
- League of Women Voters: provides an informative guide to the elections process, including useful tips on analyzing media, watching debates, campaign finance, and more. Downloadable PDF file: http://www.lwv.org/files/ElectingThePresident.pdf
- FactCheck.org: (a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center) offers the facts behind candidates’ speeches and campaign spin: http://factcheck.org/
- Teach for Peace: Media Links: Peruse headlines from a variety of news sources online such as those listed on my website. Compare lead story selection, headline word choices, and story content. Compare Fox News with Al Jazeera, for example, or Time for Kids with Indy Kids: http://www.teachforpeace.org/think/Media-Literacy-and-Online-News-Sources
- CNN Elections Issues: Short summaries of positions of major party candidates: http://www.cnn.com/election/2012/campaign-issues.html
- TIMEFORKIDS: Issues summaries for Democrats/Republicans: http://www.timeforkids.com/news/understanding-issues/44461
- Christian Science Monitor: Obama vs. Romney 101: Issues are explained in detail http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/DC-Decoder/2012/0829/Obama-vs.-Romney-101-Where-are-the-sharpest-divides
- Party Platforms for four political parties:
- Libertarian: http://www.lp.org/platform
- Green: http://www.gp.org/committees/platform/2010/index.php
- Democrat: http://www.barackobama.com/economy
- Republican: http://www.mittromney.com/JobsPlan
- Unique United Kingdom Green Party advertisement using geometric shapes and issues-specific content: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/video/2010/apr/12/green-party-ad
- CSpan: video of Museum of American Political Life http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/67449-1 At about 1 minute, into the video, you see excerpt of Nixon Checkers speech, posters, and other campaign materials.
- YouTube: You can tell a lot about a country by its political ads: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG_76NAzo9Y Use the first of these video spoofs of political ads (a USA negative ad) to help students identify negative campaign advertising techniques using voice, music, and content.