One of the main reasons I became a Social Studies teacher was my deep interest in politics. Election season is one of my favorite times of the year to be a teacher. I enjoy trying to ignite a passion in students and help generate interest in the elections. Here is a list of my favorite resources that I use to drum up interest in the elections (in no particular order):
NYTimes 2013 Budget Visualization
I refuse to discuss politics with people until they study this visualization. It is incredibly eye opening. The first thing that will jump out at the viewer is the overwhelming cost of Medicare and Social Security. See how long it takes you to find NASA and PBS’s budget allotments. Pretty small in comparison aren’t they? Neil Degrasse Tyson drove this point home when he wrote my favorite tweet during the first presidential debate:
Apparently, this comment was re-tweeted nearly 50,000 times. Students and citizens need to have a basic understanding of the fiscal issues that are dominating this election. This website accomplishes that task visually and in an easy-to-understand format.
It’s Party Time
One of the most challenging things to explain to students, without stepping on any toes, is the difference between the two major parties in our political system. Thankfully, the fine folks at Information is Beautiful developed a visualization that helps break down the two major sides of the political spectrum. I have found it effective to pair the visualization with a lesson plan I adapted from the Kids Voting curriculum. I have been able to use this lesson with junior high students to help them understand the major differences between the two major political parties. While the visualization is a little overwhelming at first glance, it does an amazing job of contrasting the two parties in a nice, easy to read, one-page format.
Judging the Presidential Debates
The presidential debates provide an excellent opportunity for students to consider a number of lessons relating to presidential politics: the major issues of the election, logical fallacies, use of evidence, media literacy etc. Thankfully, PBS NewsHour developed a great lesson activity for the Presidential Debates. The lesson utilizes a rubric/ballot developed by the Forensic League that guides students as they watch the debate. The ballot asks viewers to assess the evidence, delivery, reasoning and a number of other debate skills used by each candidate. After the debate, students use a worksheet to analyze the media coverage of the debates. If you plan on discussing the debates in your classroom, this lesson does a superb job of setting up a framework for a class discussion. In addition, it helps students develop their media literacy skills and generates interest in the election process.
AIGA Get Out the Vote Posters
I enjoy decorating my room, door and surrounding hallway with Get-Out-The-Vote posters and materials during the election season. Thanks to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, teachers can select from 100s of posters that are colorful, humorous, engaging and best of all-free. The institute hosts a poster and video design contest every four years to coincide with the election. The AIGA then posts the nonpartisan posters and videos to “help inspire the American public to participate in the electoral process and vote in the 2012 election.” The posters can easily be printed and displayed in their classrooms. In fact, the AIGA makes all the posters available as PDFs and encourages you to post them throughout your community. These images usually generate a lot of ‘buzz’ when I hang them up and get students and coworkers talking and thinking about the election. Here’s my favorite poster this year: Monkeys Want the Right to Vote.
Project Vote Smart
Need help determining which candidate best aligns with your political beliefs? Project VoteSmart saves the day with an interactive website called “Vote Easy.” The interactive website allows users to respond to a number of questions regarding major election issues, and then subsequently rank the importance of each issue. Candidates are then ranked based on the level of similarity they have to your opinions. Some students may be surprised that a candidate they thought they liked does not share many of their opinions and beliefs. The website also allows users to determine which House and Senate candidates best align with their political opinions. On a related note, iSideWith.com provides a nice election quiz that allows you to see which presidential candidate best meets your interestes. However, it does not contain any information about U.S. Senate or House candidates. If you run a mock election at your school, or participate in the Kids Voting program, Project VoteSmart will help students become informed participants in the electoral process.
Living Room Candidate
The Museum of the Moving Image released one of the most amazing resources for social studies teachers several years ago: The Living Room Candidate. The website featured an organized archive of all of the major presidential advertisements that have aired in the Television Era. The website continues to be shared by hundreds of teachers on Twitter and countless Social Studies blogs. Its user-friendly design allows teachers and students to dive into a sea of resources. In a way, the aesthetics of the site almost allow a student to experience the wonders of time travel. I wish more museums would create online websites like this. The curated videos, by their very nature, are short, engaging and sometimes humorous. The museum has developed a handful of lesson plans that will guide students as they track the evolution of political advertisements and develop critical media literacy and analysis skills. At a time when we are becoming inundated with negative advertising, sometimes these old gems provide a comedic relief to counter the present political climate. My favorite way to use the website is to develop a playlist of advertisements and then pair it with a lesson plan from the Kids Voting curriculum, entitled “Selling the Candidates.” The lesson allows students to investigate a number of advertisements and search for the “techniques of persuasion” and “logical fallacies” that each advertisement is using. When students can evaluate the claims being made and identify the techniques being used in the advertisements, it helps them build a baloney detection kit that will serve them well as they become critical consumers of media.
Last year, several educators on Twitter shared some hilarious political advertisement-spoofs that were developed by the Annenberg Center and posted on the website FlackCheck.org. The mock-TV ads targeted Lincoln in the 1864 election and were focusing on the question: Could Lincoln Be Elected Today? My favorite ad from this series is titled “Honestly Abe.” If you use the election as a moment to teach about the patters of deception that are used in most advertising, this website will serve as a great resource. I think the Lincoln ads could function as an engaging introduction to the Selling the Candidates Lesson Plan and the Living Room Candidate website. These resources help students add several more tools to their baloney detection kit, which might be the most important set of skills that we can help students assemble while they are enrolled in our Social Studies courses.
The Electoral College (Explained by in Plain English)
As long as there has been presidential elections, there has been confusion (and controversy) surrounding the Electoral College system. It is inevitable that the students in your classroom will be perplexed with this complex topic. This video, produced by Common Craft, helps simplify the Electoral College, which should clear up some of the confusion surrounding Presidential elections. The folks who produce the Common Craft videos (a.k.a. “In Plain English” videos) developed an easy to understand video using their signature paper cut-outs and hand drawings. If you’re looking for a video that is a bit more quirky and humorous, check out “How the Electoral College Works.” It may be too fast paced for younger viewers, but it does provide an excellent description of the complexities of the Presidential election.
Since President Obama is placing the legacy of his first term on the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), this legislation has received a large spotlight throughout this election season. In searching for resources that could help explain this 1,000 page piece of legislation to teenagers, I had difficulties finding lesson plans that were engaging and informative. Luckily, the Kaiser Foundation produced a video that explains the health care reform law and the impact it will have at the local level. I’ve yet to find a better video, article or visualization that describes Obamacare as well as this resource. As an added bonus, the video utilizes cartoons that assist in simplifying this complex topic and also help deliver a bit of humor. Enjoy!
I love Sandra Day O’Connor. Has there ever been another political figure in history who has done more to promote Civic Education in his or her retirement? Justice O’Connor made several important insights a few years back. Insight#1: Civic Education is declining in the United States. Insight #2: Teenagers are addicted to video games. Insight #3: If someone created highly engaging video games that focused on civic concepts, students will learn to appreciate and enjoy Civic Education more. That ‘someone’ turned out to be iCivics, a company that has developed and promoted a plethora of online games that help students learn about the Constitution, Budgeting, Foreign Policy, Separation of Powers, the 3 Branches of Government and the Election Process. One of their first games, “Do I Have a Right”, continues to be my favorite game to play with students. It allows students to manage a law office and learn about the ways that constitutional law impacts our every-day lives. In terms of gearing up for the election, check out “Win the White House”, “Cast Your Vote” and “Executive Command”. Each game could assist in generating excitement and enthusiasm about the election in your classroom.