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12 Ways to Use the Presidential Election in Your Classroom

Kim Haynes


Incorporating Election into LessonsWith last month’s conventions and next month’s debates, it’s a perfect time to bring a little election conversation into your classroom.

Here are some non-partisan ways to mix politics with classroom activities.

Red State, Blue State, Where is That State?

These days, you can’t read an article or watch a news report on the election without seeing a map of the U.S. shaded according to states lean Democratic or Republican. It’s a perfect way to help younger students memorize state names and locations. On a regular basis, give students a blank U.S. map and provide oral or written instructions about how to color it in (California is blue, Alabama is red, etc.). Give students time to color in the map; then have them compare their work with an “answer key” map. Doing this on a regular basis helps students practice identifying each state and can also give them a sense of the progress of the election.

Advertising and Politics

Many middle and high school English teachers do a unit on advertising. It teaches persuasive language and can help students become more thoughtful consumers. Put a spin on that same old unit by using political ads instead of cereal and toy commercials. Ask students to identify the symbols or persuasive language used in ads by the Obama and Romney campaigns or in ads for local candidates.

The Politics of Numbers

Answer the age-old student question, “Why do we need to know this?” by showing students how math – specifically, how to create graphs – plays an important role in the election. Visit a nonpartisan site like Real Clear Politics or Politico and gather their latest polling data. Then have students practice creating graphs – bar graphs, pie charts, line graphs, and more – to demonstrate the changes in the presidential race, your state’s House or Senate races, or the popularity of a given ballot measure. This can be a one-class-period graph-making review or a regular component of math lessons from now through Election Day.

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Students Making Policy

From the President of the United States to a local School Board member, many of the people currently running for office will have an impact on education policy and, therefore, on your students’ lives. Ask students, “If you were running for an office, what would your education policy be?” Even younger students can write a short assignment on “If I Was in Charge of Our School.” Older students can make authentic recommendations about changes to school policy. Have them debate their ideas and finish the assignment by writing letters to the school board, the governor, or the President, in which they make their case for education reform.

Survey Says

Have students create their own survey about a candidate or issue. This activity can be adapted depending on the students’ age and how much technology you want to incorporate. A very simple survey needs minimal technology (see Math is Fun for tips).

For older students, increase the complexity in any number of ways. Have them use a free tool like SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang to create an online survey. Work with them to write survey questions that might skew the results. Assign students to survey specific populations (varying ages, ethnicities, religious beliefs, education levels) and have them compare the results. No matter what approach you take, students get some math practice and also may learn some valuable lessons about polling data.

A Historical Perspective

Obama and Romney claim that this is the “most important election of our lifetimes.” While adults may be skeptical of such statements, students may not know any better. Provide students with some perspective with an election-themed research assignment. Assign groups of students to elections throughout our history. Have students research the candidates, who won, what happened to the loser, and whether historians believe the winner was a good president. UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency project is a good place to start. Students may be amazed to realize that some great presidents were unappreciated in their own time, and they may be shocked by some of the less-than-great leaders our country has experienced.

Election-Based Math Lessons

Visit the NBCLearn site for a wide selection of election-oriented math lessons, designed by Carnegie Learning. Topics include statistics, polling, mean/median/mode, and more.

Language and Nuance in Presidential Politics

For high school students, consider exploring how the same information can be presented differently by campaigns or media outlets that have a particular agenda. Assign students to a topic (for example, the health care law passed under President Obama) and have them find examples of how the Obama and Romney campaigns talk about that topic. To extend the assignment further, have students explore conservative media outlets (Fox News, the Drudge Report, etc.) and liberal media outlets (MSNBC, the Huffington Post, etc.) and see how those news sources report the same story differently.

Problem-Solving: Voter Turnout

Introduce students to the ever-present issue of low voter turnout.  Have students research what voter turnout is like in your state or community and consider potential solutions (Change in voter ID laws? Election Day holiday? More vote-by-mail or early voter programs?).  Students can write an essay or an op-ed piece for a local paper in which they share what they have learned. If you’re really feeling motivated, expand this into a service project to increase local voter turnout.

Way Back When Meets Here and Now

If you have tablets, a digital whiteboard, or a computer lab, you can bring the past to your students like never before. Try an app like Political Time Machine or visit The Living Room Candidate to watch political advertisements and historical footage from the past 50-100 years. Have students do a “scavenger hunt” through the materials to find “three vice-presidents who ran for president” or “two commercials that focus on issues about crime, guns, or drugs.” As an alternative, use The Living Room Candidate’s AdMaker to allow students to re-edit old campaign ads or make their own.

State and Local Election Coverage

While much of the country focuses on the presidential campaign, there are a host of state and local officials running for office, as well as state and local ballot measures. Use these as a basis for a range of different election-themed activities. Students could create their own version of a Voters’ Guide that explains what each ballot measure means in plain language. Students could do research on local candidates – even interviewing them – and write a newspaper article on what they’ve learned. Students could create short videos about candidates or ballot measures that are meaningful to them. These may be less controversial, but still cover important topics for students to explore.

Transition and Inauguration

The election may be over in early November, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on politically-themed classroom activities. Have students research the transition process using available materials from the 2001 Clinton-Bush transition and the 2009 Bush-Obama transition.

Have younger students study presidential inaugurations. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies has a wealth of information about the traditions of an inauguration. Students could do a report on a previous inauguration, write a letter to the committee making recommendations for the 2013 inauguration, or make plans for what their inauguration would be like if they were elected president twenty or thirty years from now.

Both Democrats and Republicans can agree that using the election in the classroom can be fun, non-partisan, and educational!

How are you bringing the 2012 election into your classroom? Share with us in the comments section!


Image Source: The Associated Press

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