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This year’s historic election is providing a unique opportunity to engage students in the political process. Rarely has a national contest been so closely followed by so many people—including kids.
Yet the ratcheted-up rhetoric is a cause of concern for many teachers. The nonpartisan Teaching Tolerance project found that more than 40 percent of teachers are reluctant to cover the election—and more than half have seen an increase in fear, bullying, and uncivil discourse among students since the 2016 campaign began.
So what’s an anxious educator to do? Don’t just opt out, recommends study author and Teaching Tolerance director Maureen B. Costello. There are ways to teach valuable lessons about the electoral process and the responsibilities of citizenship without diving into partisan politics. Plus, she says, educators can “use instances of incivility as teaching moments.” Students need our support, wisdom, and reassurance now more than ever.
To help, we’ve compiled some K–8 lesson ideas that even the most hesitant among us can use to integrate election topics across the curriculum. Don’t miss the opportunity to teach students about their civic duty—while reminding them about their duty to be civil.
Positive and Negative Campaign Talk
Connect to: Reading, Writing
Rakisha Kearns-White, a children’s librarian in Brooklyn, New York, suggests LaRue for Mayor: Letters From the Campaign Trail, by Mark Teague, to help kids understand why politics can sometimes get negative—and how to overcome this.
The Setup: Read LaRue for Mayor—about a canine mayoral hopeful—pointing out the many kinds of writing used: newspaper stories, letters, campaign posters. Discuss the purpose of each.
Tone Check: Make a two-column chart. On the left, list examples of positive language the fictional candidates use to describe themselves. On the right, list negative words they use to describe opponents. Discuss why they might behave this way. Have students propose things the candidates could say or do differently to be more polite.
Going Further: Write a class article (in sentence form on the board or chart paper) comparing the way the candidates in LaRue treated each other before and after they partnered up. Come up with a headline and revise as needed.
Supreme Court Power
Connect to: Math
The winner of the 2016 U.S. presidential election will have the power to shape the Supreme Court for generations. After reviewing what judges do, introduce students to the nation’s highest court.
The Setup: Read I Dissent, by Debbie Levy, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career. Talk about the president’s power to nominate judges to the Supreme Court. Then, choose nine student justices to form a classroom Supreme Court. They can make robes from black construction paper (with white paper for collars).
Begin Session: Help kids choose an issue to bring before the court (e.g., whether students should be able to buy ice cream at lunch). The justices will then discuss their opinions and vote.
Going Further: Use vote results to create math problems within nine, using drawings, manipulatives, or number sentences (e.g., If four of the justices voted “yes,” how many voted “no”?).
On the Campaign Trail
Connect to: Geography
Students cross the country to learn about voting—and practice map skills.
The Setup: Read Around America to Win the Vote, by Mara Rockliff, about two women who drove cross-country with a kitten to fight for women’s suffrage. Using a large map of the U.S., markers, and yarn, have students chart the women’s journey. Discuss how voting rights have expanded and why it’s so important to exercise this right.
Map the Candidates: Find out where the presidential candidates are on the campaign trail. Place map markers for each one. Use location phrases like “north of our state” or “two states to the left” to guide students.
Going Further: Share with students which candidate is “ahead” in the states they visit. Put a red or blue sticky note on the state to show this.
Connect to: Math
Help kids use surveys to dive into the role of data in presidential campaigns.
The Setup: Explain that campaigns collect large amounts of data about individuals, with the goal of better understanding voter preferences.
Gather Data: Tell two groups they will create a fictional “dream candidate” for class president. They will choose the candidate’s school-policy proposals (e.g., more recess) based on data they collect from classmates through surveys. Have each group create a survey and then design two posters. The first introduces their dream candidate and policy ideas. The second is a chart showing the data.
Going Further: Have groups present their dream candidates and vote on the most appealing. Then, have them share charts and say how they used the data to develop their candidate.
Taxes, Taxes, Taxes!
Connect to: Math
Taxes are always on voters’ minds. Pam Olivieri created a lively math game for her fourth graders in Clover, South Carolina, to illustrate why taxes cause so much disagreement.
The Setup: Give each student an equal salary in a “currency” of your choice (money manipulatives, base-10 blocks). Appoint three congresspeople and an IRS collection agent.
Tax the Class: Have the congresspeople take turns announcing new taxes (e.g., on “shorts wearers” or “names beginning with A”). The tax can be a dollar amount, a fraction, or a percentage. Have the IRS agent collect the tax. After several rounds, discuss how those who gave the most and the least feel about it.
Going Further: Discuss why we have taxes and where they go. Explain why some people might pay more and others less, and ask what students think is fair. Then, share simplified versions of each presidential candidate’s tax proposals. Discuss reasons why voters support or oppose a particular plan.
Campaign Site Analysis
Connect to: Reading, Writing
Students dig deep into persuasive techniques used on candidates’ websites.
The Setup: Have groups analyze each candidate’s official site and ask:
What effect do word choices in headings and slogans have?
What personal qualities were the photos chosen to convey?
What colors are used, and what do they bring to mind?
What features/sections does the site have? What is their purpose?
What persuasive techniques are used (bandwagon, negativity, etc.)?
Present Analysis: Discuss which candidate used persuasive tools more effectively. Encourage students to provide specific details to support their opinions and to focus on techniques rather than policy views. Then, have each student pretend to be a campaign strategist and write a letter to one of the candidates offering advice on how to make his or her site more effective.
Going Further: Have students design a campaign website “home page” (on paper or electronically) for their own presidential run. Extend with this lesson plan on persuasive strategies!
Connect to: Social Studies, Art
Michael Milton, a history teacher in Burlington, Massachusetts, teaches the three branches of government in a way that resonates: through superheroes.
The Setup: Milton gives groups these prompts: What if each branch was a superhero? What would it look like? What superpowers would it have? What weaknesses? Have groups research the powers on Ben’s Guide to the U.S. Government or elsewhere and create a superhero. (Students can show powers as symbols.)
Critique and Refine: Groups swap heroes to critique using these prompts: What powers are missing? What limitations does the hero have? Each group offers suggestions and symbols to add, then revises its own superheroes.
Going Further: Use this activity to spur class discussions about the relative powers of the branches.
Connect to: Reading, Writing
A word cloud can scaffold students’ analysis of political rhetoric while offering surprising insights.
The Setup: Display a word cloud, pointing out how font size shows the frequency with which words appear in a text. Have students use a word cloud generator to analyze a candidate’s political speech or another document related to the current or a past election. (Offer appropriate options.) To do this, students can paste a text transcript into the generator, adjust the styling of the word cloud, and print it out.
Analyze Word Choice: Ask students to choose five key words from their cloud to analyze, answering these questions: Why is this word used so often? What does the candidate or party have to say about it? How is repeating it intended to affect the audience?
Going Further: Have kids do an essay, booklet, or poster to analyze.
Science and Prez Power
Connect to: Science
How much impact can the next president have on science?
The Setup: Compile a list of organizations related to science (e.g., the EPA, the National Park Service, NASA) and ask groups to research one.
Find the President’s Role: Have groups research how past presidents have influenced policy. (For instance, Theodore Roosevelt doubled the number of National Park sites.) Ask students to discuss how much impact the next president could have on science.
Going Further: Search for statements by the candidates that reveal their opinions and probable influence on the chosen scientific organization.
For more lesson ideas, check out our full list of Election Resources.
Photo: Media Bakery