To provide students with authentic experiences about the election, every four years I would ask students to follow the presidential campaigns, research issues, make presentations citing why they'd vote for a candidate, and hold mock elections. All that changed when I heard about my colleague Su Hickenbottom's success with the storypath method. Here's how it works in election season.
About the Storypath Method
Storypath, developed in Scotland in the 1960s, organizes social studies units around stories that children construct. For 15 or 20 periods, Su's students learn about elections by transforming their classroom into opposing camps, choosing up sides like young James Carvilles and Mary Matalins, and creating and enacting the drama of fictional campaign headquarters. Kids not only learn content, but practice social skills and cooperation.
This year I'm going to try storypath with my class and see what a shoe-in for election-year fun it is! Following is Su's step-by-step recap of how it works.
I explain to children that they will be the producers, directors, and actors in their own presidential campaign story that they will organize around the following five elements: setting, characters, context, critical incidents, and concluding events. To help them develop their story, I explain that I'll use the inquiry technique and ask them key questions.
Creating the Setting
We discuss what constitutes a political party, what its role is in a democratic society, and why a presidential candidate needs a party. I guide my students by asking what activities of a presidential candidate might be, why they need campaign workers and headquarters, and so on.
Then students divide into two groups and form political parties. I ask questions to help them establish their individual party's identity and platforms. Once parties choose symbols and slogans, they create murals that depict the spirit of their campaign headquarters.
I ask students to brainstorm a cast of campaign worker characters whose roles they will play in a story they will create. After kids write job descriptions for each, they design paper dolls to represent the characters and attach them to their murals.
Building the Context
Students pose as their characters and introduce themselves to one another. Then parties choose several presidential candidates from among themselves by carefully assessing the qualifications, experience, and personality of each character.
As kids gear up for the presidential primaries, they choose real states and real issues to focus on. For instance, if students select Florida, they tailor their party and candidate platforms to reflect the concerns of its many retired residents.
Candidates and their aides give speeches, "air" commercials, post ads, and so on. Kids must work their campaigns within a budget — for example, they only get so many poster boards and minutes of PA airtime.
At recess kids recruit students in other classrooms as members of their parties and register them to vote in the primary election.
Damaging news comes to light: Students must invent some problem in the past of each candidate that brings into question his or her suitability for office. Kids confront the problems of media scrutiny. Then we hold the primary.
After the primary, parties select vice-presidential candidates, write nominating speeches, and hold lively conventions to which we invite student voters from other classrooms. Then kids stage debates between the nominated candidates (again, we invite the student voters), and on the same day as the national election, we hold our own election.
Why My Students Win Big
Thanks to storypath, my kids gain an appreciation for the complexities of a campaign and the importance of clear and accurate communication. They develop an understanding of how political parties work and the kind of influence they have in an election. Students meet questions head-on about the role of media, candidate qualifications, and mudslinging, and compare their classroom experience with the actual presidential campaigns.
For More Information
Storypath: A Strategy for Meaningful Learning in Social Studies was written by Margit E. McGuire, Ph.D., former president of the National Council for the Social Studies. Sample storypaths (suitable for early, middle, and upper elementary) — including a presidential election, families in their neighborhoods, a safari to Kenya, the rain forest, medieval castles, explorers, and the Civil War — are available from Everyday Learning Corporation, 180 N. Stetson St., Suite 1175, Chicago, IL 60601. Call (800) 382-7670.
Tarry Linquist, Instructor's regular social studies columnist, is a teacher on Mercer Island, Washington, and author of Seeing the Whole Through Social Studies (Heinemann, 1995). She was recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies as National Elementary Teacher of the Year.