Every four years, educators use the presidential election to impart valuable lessons to students about the electoral process, democracy, government, and the responsibilities of citizenship. While many teachers avoid discussing matters of personal opinion, they are finding creative ways to use the campaign as fodder for especially impactful lessons and classroom activities. Teachers across the region have implemented lesson plans and programs for students of all ages, and many have ambitious plans for the weeks leading up to Election Day and beyond, as they dissect and discuss the results.
Because the 2016 election has been especially contentious, Jen Hickey, a sixth grade Individuals and Societies (formerly known as social studies) teacher at Dobbs Ferry Middle School in Dobbs Ferry is using this opportunity to teach her students about respect and how it’s possible to get a point across without using inflammatory language. “This will prepare them for adulthood,” she says. “In order to be taken seriously, it’s important to sound educated while discussing topics such as the election.”
Hickey oversees a lesson in which students work in small groups and read excerpts from the candidate’s websites. They focus on five issues the students have identified as being important to them. However, the excerpts are labeled as Candidate A and Candidate B, instead of identifying the candidate with whom they are associated.
“After reading all of the text excerpts, students decide which candidate their views align better with and vote for that candidate,” Hickey says. “After all of the classes have voted, at the end of the day, we announce who was Candidate A and who was Candidate B. In our next class, we talk about their vote and would it have been any different if they knew which candidate was A and B. It’s a great opportunity for students to have conversations with each other and also their families about how they voted on certain issues.”
Debating the Issues
Students at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Hall Regional School in Bellmore are required to watch the presidential debates and engage in discussions about the campaign during time set aside for current events every Friday. “I want my students to know where each candidate stands on key issues so they can see how their opinions impact our country’s economy,” says Laura Sena, a middle school social studies teacher at the school.
The seniors in Richard Salerno’s Advanced Placement Government class at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle are also encouraged to engage in debate. “I partner up with our speech-and-debate coach Charles Sloat, using his debate methodology on our shared project,” Salerno says. “We coordinate topics to be debated by my students on our blog. This year our first two topics were fashioned to discuss the 2016 presidential election.”
The first topic for debate was whether social media coverage of the presidential race this year will do more to influence the outcome of the election than traditional news outlets. The second topic focused on whether contempt for the candidates has made many Americans feel disenfranchised—and whether that will lead to a particularly low voter turnout.
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Speaking of turnout, eighth grade students at Pelham Middle School in Pelham are focusing heavily on voter registration and how to get people to the polls. The students have been tasked with creating public service announcements to encourage voting, and discussions and lessons have emphasized citizens’ responsibilities.
“In addition to the PSAs and the analysis of last year’s voter turnout, we are also asking students to interview relatives about their voting experiences,” says Maria Thompson, director of humanities at the Pelham Public Schools. “We want to find out what they remember most about their first time voting and their last time voting.”
Some schools took their election lessons outside of the classroom. Five Oceanside High School students were randomly selected by their social studies teacher, Laura Trongard, to attend a day-long series of election-related events at Hofstra University in Hempstead. Their day culminated with attending the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which took place on campus.
Members of the Massapequa mock trial team also spent the day on Hofstra’s campus, taking part in various media events. They were involved in panel discussions led by political correspondents, witnessed historical reenactments of the 1872 and 1972 debates, learned about the role social media is playing in this election, saw a video art display on the issues at stake, and participated in a mock vote.
Their day concluded by participating in a debate party, during which they were able to watch a live feed of the debate in an auditorium on campus with students from other area high schools.
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Pelham students will participate in a mock online election, which will occur just prior to Election Day, with the results posted online as well. Mock elections like this are particularly successful at energizing young people to take an interest in voting, teachers say.
“The mock election gives students the chance to understand how the election system works,” Hickey says. “My hope is that when the students become old enough to vote, they will remember what they learned here and take the time to study the issues before they vote in a real election.”
The mock election at Dobbs Ferry Middle School will require students in sixth through eighth grades to “sign in” at a polling site and cast their vote. The school will post interviews with students at the “polling site” throughout the day on its Facebook page and announce who the students “elected” for President.
Engaging Even the Youngest Students
This time of the year, even the youngest children know something is up. They see a running stream of political advertisements on television, flyers coming in the mail with photos of politicians, and the ubiquitous lawn signs. To address the election with the younger set, many schools are turning to visual displays. Elementary schools in Pelham, for instance, have set up “word walls” highlighting vocabulary related to the election so kids can make the connection between what they sometimes hear at home and how it relates to the real world.
Some educators, such as those at the Green Ivy Schools in Manhattan, approach the topic differently when it comes to the younger grades, waiting for them to raise the issue and ask questions. “Because we are committed to relevant and purposeful inquiry, we would explore the particular aspects of the election children ask about and want to pursue deeper knowledge in,” says Christina Stanfield, chief marketing officer at Green Ivy, “rather than preformulating how we want them to view any important election.”
Whatever the approach, teachers know that a presidential election offers a once-in-four years opportunity to add some real-world excitement and engagement to their curriculum. “Our lessons are ideal for preparing students for life outside of the classroom,” Hickey says. “We want to open their eyes beyond Dobbs Ferry to create educated global citizens,” she says.
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