Election 2012: May the Best Character Win!
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5
Over the past two elections, I’ve created a series of lessons to take my 3rd graders through a full-fledged presidential campaign that manages to stay away from the super-charged emotions that can go with politics. Over the next two posts I’m happy to share with you how I help my students gain an awareness of the democratic process and of the role our citizens play in it, all while meeting several Common Core State Standards.
The lessons below usually take place over the course of five to six days. The activities aren’t broken down into specific days so you can fit them into your schedule in a way that works best for you. Throughout this unit, you’ll also want to spend time discussing the purpose of each activity and how it parallels the real election process.
When I first introduced this project a week ago, all I had to do was mention the words “presidential election,” and children immediately began cheering for one of the current candidates, vehemently shouting down those on the other side. Not wanting a raucous campaign rally in my reading corner, I explained we wouldn’t be voting for President Obama or Mitt Romney, but that instead we were going to nominate our own candidates. Now I really had their attention. Below I describe the framework of my election unit.
Setting the Stage
To familiarize my class with the presidential election, during read-aloud we read books like So You Want to Be President, If I Were President, and What Does the President Do? Students also worked their way through Scholastic's interactive online game If You Were President. During this activity in the computer lab, they loved picking their advisors and balancing the budget. The printed newspaper they get at the end, naming all their accomplishments, was a big hit with everyone.
Selecting the Candidates
To really get the unit started, tell your students that they are going to be the campaign manager for a favorite book character they feel would make a good leader.
Together, on chart paper, list character traits a president should have. Then have students give you names of characters they feel might make good presidents.
Next, on a sticky note, students write down the name of one book character they feel has all or many of the traits listed, and then they place their note on the anchor chart.
At this point, my students were allowed to form groups. Those with the same characters most often join forces, and those who do not want to work alone abandon their book character in favor of someone else’s. While I allowed my students to work alone, or in groups of two or three, all chose to work with at least one partner this year.
After choosing a character, the next step is for the students to write a short introductory paragraph about him or her. The paragraph should include biographical information, such as age, occupation, and residence, along with a brief explanation of why their candidate would make an excellent president. I always model a paragraph with the class before giving the assignment.
Choosing a Party
At each juncture of this unit, I stop and explain how our activity is similar to what is happening in the real election. After explaining that we have two main political parties in our country, and each has ideas on how the country should run, we set to choosing political parties for our own candidates. The two-party system I have devised includes the Narrative Party and the Informational Party.
Students read the platforms for each party, displayed on the SMART Board, and with their partners decide which one they feel their character would most likely fit into, based on what they know about them, what they wrote in their brief biography, and what their character’s point of view would be.
Announcing Their Candidacy
Normally on the second day of this unit, I have each candidate make an official announcement of their candidacy for president of the United States. To add to the pomp and circumstance, I set up a podium or other place of honor from which students can make their official proclamation, and each student gets a name tag with their character's name on it. In the past I have even draped the podium with red, white, and blue bunting and provided a microphone to add to the important feeling. The name tags come from Scholastic Printables, which has quite a few great election resources.
Registering to Vote
Now that everyone is thoroughly excited about the election, I explain that every United States citizen older than 18 has the right to vote. For this election, however, we will be lowering the legal age to 8 years old and over, and you only need to be a citizen of our classroom. Originally my registration form had a check box for citizenship, which I quickly dropped when I discovered two of my students are Canadian citizens and a third is a citizen of Japan. The last thing I want to do is disenfranchise the 8-year-old voter!
Distribute copies of the voter registration application to each student. When they have completed the forms, collect them. After their applications are “processed,” each student receives a voter registration card, which includes the region each student represents, with the regions divided equally among the students. These regions come into play later on when electoral votes become important. I chose the five regions on the cards simply because they match the five regions we study in social studies.
After their registration has been completed, give each student a regional electoral college tag that matches the region on their registration card. (I like to laminate and make them into lanyards the students can wear around.) Tell students the tags identify which region their vote represents and how many electoral votes their one vote will count as. Use Scholastic’s U.S. Electoral Map to show how the electoral college votes are divided.
At this point I inform students that there will be a voting restriction that does not exist in real elections. In a real presidential election, every person who has registered is allowed to cast one vote for any candidate they like. In our election, however, no one may vote for their own character. Discuss with your class why there might be problems with voting for yourself in a relatively small group. (There is a good chance you would have a very large one-vote tie!)
Funding the Campaign
Students need to understand that successful campaigns can be quite costly. This part of the project involves students acquiring, then deciding how they want to spend their money. I display a list of potential campaign expenses on the SMART Board, and we discuss each thoroughly. Together we brainstorm different ways a candidate might raise money.
I print the fundraiser cards, and cut up just enough so each candidate in my room gets only one. Students randomly select one from a hat. Just as in real life, each candidate will have a different amount to spend.
Next, students receive their campaign expense form, which includes their expense report. Each student can only spend the amount on the fundraising card they selected. When a candidate is out of money, they are out of money. No borrowing allowed!
I give each student a large piece of paper, and they set about creating their campaign posters. The benefit to working in groups on this was watching how well my students worked together to create a product they were proud of.
Students also have the options of creating more posters, flyers, or even a video commercial as long as they have the funds to pay for it.
This is where the regional name tags play a big role. Through discussion, students learn that they are best served spending their advertising dollars on the regions that have the most electoral votes. When money gets tight, the students who wear the Southeast tags with their 135 electoral votes get a lot more attention than those students from the West who have 61 electoral votes.
The Persuasive Speech
Each candidate must give a persuasive speech from the point of view of their character, to tell the voters why they are the best choice for president. While we go over the important elements of a persuasive speech, I find one of the best resources is Scholastic’s Writing With Writers series, where experts Karen Finney and Lou Giansante will teach your students how to write and deliver a persuasive speech in their online interactive workshop.
When students give their speeches, members of the audience have the opportunity to score them using a three-point rubric. This is a good way for students to remember for whom they want to vote when the time comes to cast a ballot.
Stay tuned for next week's continuation of this election lesson where we will explore the primaries and choosing a running mate!