Nurturing Informed Voters and Citizens Begins in Elementary and Middle School
By Andrea S. Libresco
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."
-- Thomas Jefferson
“We don’t need more voters. We need more informed voters.”
-- Dan Rather
Most secondary social studies teachers are familiar with the excitement of teaching in an election year; elementary teachers and their students deserve to experience what H.G. Wells called “the feast of democracy” as well. Social studies supervisors have an opportunity, as well as a responsibility, to ensure that elementary instruction in a presidential election year goes beyond the obligatory Friday Time for Kids lessons, for supervisors know that effective election instruction is effective citizenship instruction. Thus election instruction that addresses essential questions, is ongoing, employs a variety of sources, results in students knowing where to find reliable sources and how to assess their legitimacy, has students grapple with their peers with complex issues, connects to historical issues, and encourages students to make deliberative, informed judgments and act on those judgments can and ought to be the centerpiece of the elementary curriculum from September through November and even beyond.
What follows are guidelines for elementary teachers in approaching the elections, though much of the advice would be appropriate for secondary teachers as well. At the end of the piece is a list of websites which can help teachers and students research the answers to the essential questions and acquire data for the activities below.
What to do in the intermediate elementary and middle school grades:
Keep curriculum and instruction focused around essential questions:
Explore the characteristics of democracy vs. dictatorship.
- How can we find accurate information about the candidates?
- Is the media coverage more about substance or horse race?
- Who votes and who doesn’t, and what are the implications?
- Does everyone’s vote count equally?
- What affects people’s political views?
- Should race and/or gender be prime considerations in casting one’s vote this year?
- What role does money play in elections and governing?
- What issues are/should be most important in 2008?
- How similar/different are the parties’ platforms?
- Should we watch political ads?
- What role do/should third parties play?
- How important are the non-presidential races?
- How do we get candidates to follow through on their campaign promises?
Detail the nature of the job and assess the candidates’ abilities to do it.
- Parse the word, “democracy” (the people rule). Discuss the Thomas Paine quote, “In the Old World, the king is the law; in the New World, the law is king.” Discuss the “social contract” between rulers and ruled by examining Declaration of Independence language, “consent of the governed,” and “right of rebellion.”
- Discuss the importance of being an informed voter. (See two quotes above.)
- Discuss the extent to which U.S. democracy has historically allowed all citizens to vote. Create an illustrated timeline of voting rights.
- Discuss the importance of reliable voting systems – revisit Florida election of 2000 and start collecting articles about potential voting problems this year.
Research the issues. Assess reliability of data, claims and counterclaims.
- Notice what the U.S. leader wears (civilian garb) and is addressed as (Mr. or Mme. President) vs. other countries (military uniform, Generalissimo, Your Highness, etc.)
- Detail the roles of the president by examining the newspaper. (Be sure to discuss the role of the president in appointing Supreme Court justices FOR LIFE, as well as the age of the current justices.)
- Infer what qualities are needed in a president based on the roles.
- Throughout America’s history up to present day, assess the accuracy of the statement, “Anyone can grow up to be president.”
- Research the biographies and records of the candidates. Check multiple sources where questions have been raised about the facts of their backgrounds.
Decipher and create commentary.
- Brainstorm issues that ought to be the focus of a presidential race.
- Read newspapers, magazines to see if these issues are discussed, and how well they are covered.
- Decide where you stand on the issues. Take some of the political spectrum tests included in the websites below.
- Research where the candidates stand on the issues. (Avoid examining too many.)
- Research where the candidates’ parties stand on the issues. Read the Democratic and Republican platforms. Chart the areas of difference.
- Excerpt the debates for students, focusing on clear differences in policy positions and different facts given. Have students fact-check (www.factheck.org) factual disputes, and elucidate the reasoning behind the policy disputes.
- Decide, based on reliable data, which candidate best matches your own views.
Put it all together.
- Op-ed pieces require reading strategies: predicting subject matter, chunking information, accessing prior knowledge, using context clues, etc. Ultimately, students should create their own op-ed pieces – may be letters to the editor, essays, video commentaries, etc.
- Political cartoon analysis and creation: symbols, meaning (refer to particular current event or issue), cartoonist’s message (give evidence from the cartoon).
Prepare for election night.
- Have students create document-based questions (DBQs) on the candidates, using quotes, speeches, statistics on the economy, data on the Iraq war, etc.
- Have students compare and evaluate the DBQs for accuracy, omissions of important issues, etc.
- Vote in the national mock election and in an upper grades election.
Keep following events post-election.
- Map the electoral college and the swing states.
- Baseball analogy helps explain winner-take-all system (e.g., you can score more runs overall in the playoffs, but unless you win each game, you don’t win the overall series).
What to do (and what not to do) in the primary grades:
- Analyze election results and statistics. How was turnout compared to previous elections? How did turnout vary according to race, class, gender, education, etc.? For whom did various types of people (race, class, gender, region) vote? Why do you think the candidates appealed to those constituencies?
- Analyze the fairness and accuracy of election results.
- Hold the president-elect’s feet to the fire. Are the Cabinet appointments in keeping with campaign promises? Are the first acts in keeping with promises? Is the president governing the way you expected him/her to, based on the campaign?
Naturally, primary teachers want their students to be involved in elections, too; however, they cannot be involved in the same ways as their intermediate counterparts. In fact it is possible to send exactly the wrong message about voting with an overly ambitious activity. For example, having primary students cast votes for president without really being able to understand the issues sends the message that voting is not an informed judgment; rather, it is just a fun activity. I remember a rather ridiculous four page mini-magazine put out by one of the news-for-kids companies in 2000 that had pictures of the Gore family, including the family dog, Shiloh, pictures of the Bush family, including their dog, Barney, and then asked second-graders to vote for the president. On what basis would they be voting? Whether they preferred Barney, the Scottish terrier to Shiloh, the Black Lab? It is also important to avoid the trap of having students vote on something like their favorite flavor of ice cream because such an activity also suggests to students that voting is mere “taste” or preference rather than the result of research on the candidates and issues. Primary children can still be involved in all sorts of ways during the election – exploring and voting on an issue on their school or community level, simulating voting in a booth, and expressing views on the school issue through the school announcements and posters. They just need to be involved in ways that they can understand.
What to do as a citizen role model for students and colleagues:
Our legacy as teachers must be as exemplars of a community of discourse where all people, young and old, share a quest for reliable knowledge and learn to develop skills of analysis that lead to informed judgment. Democracy cannot thrive without such citizens. If elementary students are to become informed and active citizens as a result of a comprehensive unit on the presidential election, it is important for their teachers to model these behaviors as well. One of the most important aspects of modeling citizenship includes carrying around and reading from a newspaper every day. Teachers may well be the only adults in children’s lives who read a newspaper. Teachers should be able to fulfill some of their professional development hours by engaging in current events discussion groups, just as they are able to do with literature circles. Surely, keeping abreast of and analyzing important issues, exhibiting the behaviors of lifelong citizens, is as important as exhibiting the behaviors of lifelong readers. Social studies teachers, charged with preparing citizens to be thinkers and actors in their world, must, themselves, be wide-awake citizens. The presidential election gives teachers an excellent opportunity to undertake this work.
Websites for Analyzing and Teaching the 2008 Elections
Finding Reliable And Alternative Sources
Annenberg Political Fact Check
(Non-partisan organization checks on candidates’ information in ads, speeches, debates)
The War, The Press, and Democracy
(Media coverage of the war in Iraq)
The World Votes
(World citizens weigh in on US elections)
National Priorities Project
(Ongoing “clock” shows alternatives to spending on the Iraq War)
(News articles with a liberal bent from around the country and the world)
The Daily Mis-lead
(Corrects information from the Bush White House, complete with footnotes)
(Builds electronic advocacy groups around different issues like campaign finance, environmental and energy issues, media consolidation, or the Iraq war. Once a group is assembled, MoveOn provides information and tools to help each individual have the greatest possible impact – openly asking for support of Obama)
General Information About Elections
NBC Decision ‘08
(NBC News responds to questions about the presidential election from students.)
United States Presidential Elections
(Information on history of elections, voting process, current stories)
PBS - By the People – Election
(Variety of information – glossary of election terms, articles analyzing 2004 elections, parties, issues, candidates)
Elections and Voting – Subject Resource Guide
(Hofstra library sites - tons of links, well-organized)
National Council for the Social Studies - Elections
(Clearinghouse site - lots of resources, websites - not yet updated for 2008)
Information About Voting
Federal Election Commission
(Federal election commission answers questions about voter registration and voting)
Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement
(Voter turnout charts and maps)
United States Census Bureau – Voting and Registration
(Detailed tables on reported voting and registration by various demographic and socioeconomic characteristics)
(Links to your local reps and senators)
Information About The Electoral College
National Archives - U.S. Electoral College
(National archives site contains good historical information and lessons)
How the Electoral College Works
(Brief article explains how the electoral college works)
Information About Issues
U.S. Election 2008 Campaign Issues
(Provides an interesting list and explanation of issues for the elections but does not provide candidates’ points of view)
Campaign Issues 2008
(Good source of issues with candidates’ positions)
CNN Election Center 2008
(Another good site for issues and candidates)
On the Issues – Every Political Leader on Every Issue
(Provides non-partisan information on issues and candidates)
Political parties’ platforms
(They won’t be available until the summer, but, when they are, google “Democratic Party Platform” and “Republican Party Platform)” to find out where the two major parties (and other parties) stand on the major issues of the day.)
General Sites for Activities
(Educators for Social Responsibility has election activities for all grade levels)
The Democracy Project - PBS
(What the president does, how voting affects us, how government works)
Constitutional Rights Foundation – Election Central
(Lessons, readings, activities, links)
Political Spectrum Tests
(Take the 10 question quiz to see how your own views match those of all the remaining candidates)
Washington Post - Choose Your Candidate
(Democratic and Republican quizzes on issues help you find out which candidate’s views in your party match most closely with your own)
(20-question quiz that matches your views to the candidates’ views)
(Several tests to take to see where you are on the political spectrum and which candidates’ views most closely match your own)
Electoral Compass – Wall Street Journal
(35-question test matches your views to the candidates’ views)
Analyzing Advertisements, Political Cartoons, Websites, etc.
The Living Room Candidate – Presidential Ads 1952-2004
(Videos of historic ads)
Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index
(Hundreds of current cartoons on a variety of topics, organized by issue and cartoonist.)
The Savvy Voter
(PBS site on how to view critically: the news, ads, debates, platforms, polls and websites)
Electoral College Tally
Electoral College and Map Generator
(Allows you to record electoral votes as they are awarded)
U.S. Presidential Election Results
(Interactive site of historical election results by year and state, showing popular and electoral votes statistically and on a map)
National Archives - U.S. Electoral College
(National archives site shows how to tally electoral college)
270 to Win
Interactive map of electoral votes
Take Your Kids to Vote
(Activities to show that democracy is not a spectator sport)
National Student – Parent Mock Election
(Participate in a nationwide election on October 30, 2008)
Adventures of Cyberbee
(A variety of election lessons and links at the elementary level great)
Electing a President
(A variety of activities and links at the elementary level)
Congress for Kids
(Good information site on how Congress works and gets elected)
(Good site for information about presidents with links to other sites)
Ben’s Guide to Government
(Information about election process, grades 3-5)
Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government
(Information about election process, grades k-2)
Scholastic News – Countdown to Election 2008
(Information, activities, reports from the campaign trail, etc.)
Time for Kids Election Connection 2008
(Where candidates stand on the issues, activities, etc.)
Political Parties’ Websites
The Democratic Party
The Republican Party
The Green Party
D is for Democracy: A Citizen’s Alphabet
by Elissa Grodin and Vitor Jahasz
(Excellent, upper level book emphasizes the importance of asking questions in a democracy, and the purpose of taxes, among other things.)
The Day Gogo Went to Vote
by Eleanor Batezat Sisulu.
(LOVE this book about the first time after apartheid was over when the narrator's grandmother goes to vote – beautiful pictures and story.)
My Teacher for President
by Kay Winters and Denise Brunkus
(Second grader who has been learning about the president's job, thinks that his teacher would be the perfect candidate, given her qualifications. Delightful and amusing.)
Vote by Eileen Christelow
(Accessible introduction to voting through a mayoral election in which the mother of a young, African American girl is one of the candidates, while two humorous dogs provide commentary on the action.)
I Could Do That: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote
by Linda Arms White
(Inspirational picture book biography of a young woman with gumption who helps gain the vote for Wyoming and becomes the first woman to hold public office.)
We the People (elementary level), Center for Civic Education.
(Excellent softcover text on how U.S. government was formed and works.)
Woodrow for President: A Tail of Voting, Campaigns, and Elections
by Peter W. Barnes, Cheryl Shaw Barnes.
(Mouse running for pres in rhyme is only okay.)
You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?
by Jean Fritz, Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan
(I generally like Jean Fritz, but this one is only okay.)
America (the book): A citizen’s guide to democracy inaction
by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to find your political voice and become a catalyst for change
The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear
edited by Paul Rogat Loeb.
And check out my website (http://people.hofstra.edu/faculty/andrea_s_libresco/); click on “web links” and scroll down to “2008 Elections” for an updated list of multiple websites.
Andrea S. Libresco is Associate Professor of Education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.