By Teachers, For Teachers
American cynic H.L. Mencken said, “A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.” As we find ourselves in the midst of another election season in America, we have the opportunity to use classroom activities to take advantage of the cultural attention currently centered on politics and the election process.
As students of all ages have their curiosity piqued by what they hear about the current campaigns, here are a few classroom activities we can facilitate to help teach students about politics.
While the presidential candidates often get the lion’s share of attention, it may be helpful to show students that elections take place at every level of government. Show students sample ballots, have students look up whom they (their parents) can vote for, and who currently holds office in their community, their state, and the nation.
I joke how our classrooms are run like totalitarian dictatorships with the intention of teaching students how to operate in a democratic society. Ironic? During election season is a great time to introduce students to the voting process. Offer topics students can vote on and have formal ballots or methods for tallying votes. You can even help students get more involved by making speeches or arguments on behalf of one option or another.
“Television is still king of campaign spending,” according to the New York Times. Your students are more than likely to see dozens of television campaign advertisements, which opens up the door for discussion about politics, rhetoric, and the art of persuasion. Look at political ads in class and help students assess what strategies each politician employs to convince viewers of their message.
While talking about political issues and having students vote, don’t pass up the chance to engage students in the making of graphs. Line graphs, bar graphs, pie graphs, and their cousins are time-honored ways of comparing information. Ask students to chart class voting results, take survey or polls, and keep track of election information by creating accurate, colorful graphs.
Why are elections important? Well, the voter turnout in the United States is relatively low compared to most developed countries, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s encourage students from their youth to see that who we elect makes a difference. Give students examples of local and national politicians who made laws that affect students’ lives, and have them research laws of their own!
Nothing helps a person understand a process better than going through that process themselves. Ask students to design their own campaign for office in your school. What would their slogan be? What do they care about what they would change? What would their posters look like? What would they say in their speeches?
America’s constitutional republic is just one form of government. Talk about how America’s government is constructed, and contrast it with other countries’ forms of government, both modern and historical.
Ask students to research who is running for office in their community. Have students select a local trustee, a state legislator, or judge seeking election in their town. Then they should research who that person is and what they stand for, and decide whether or not they’d vote for that person.
Ask students to talk to their parents about politics. Work with students to devise a list of “Interview” questions they could ask their parents about candidates and issues. Hopefully it will lead to a meaningful conversation students can have with their parents about what’s important to them and how they participate in the democratic process as adults.
As a general rule, I recommend avoiding bringing up contentious and electrifying issues in the classroom. Politics has as much a chance to divide us as it does to bring us together, and allowing a politically charged conversation to run rampant through your classroom is likely an irresponsible move as a teacher.
It’s important to teach students about elections and politics, but it’s also important to teach them how to maturely, professionally state their perspectives in a way that respects others.
Also, it’s important that teachers refrain from asserting their personal political opinions in class. As an authority figure in the classroom, it’s the teacher’s task to facilitate academic learning – not insert their personal perceptions. Abstaining from sharing personal opinions also gives students room to develop their own perspectives on issues.
What are your ideas for teaching students about politics during the campaign season? Share your thoughts with our TeachHUB.com community in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.