Bringing Election Day into the Classroom

Shortly before the California primaries, I found a Facebook thread where women were pondering what to do with the stacks of campaign mailers they had collected from the various races. One thought she might be able to use the heavy cardstock in her crafts. Another suggested origami. Origami? With that heavy paper? Perhaps she was kidding.

May I make another suggestion? If you’re a school teacher – English or social science – Election Day castoffs make wonderful teaching aids, and they are free. The California Common Core reading standards ask students as early as elementary school to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” Further reading standards ask students to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.”

Here are some ideas on how to recycle campaign mailers and voter information guides in the classroom. Before you start, make sure you collect materials from both sides of a campaign and from both Republican and Democrat parties. Collect from other parties if possible. Do that by sending an e-mail to your school staff several days before your classroom activities asking people to donate their mailers to you. You will receive items from candidates and elections outside your own voting district this way as well as from parties to which you do not belong. Make sure you aren’t taking one side of an issue or favoring a candidate, even inadvertently. Now is not the time for partisan politics. Students need to be exposed to different viewpoints and to read all sides of an issue.

Students will ask your views. Don’t tell them or hint at them. As a teacher, you are expected to keep your personal politics out of the classroom, but you honestly don’t want to influence students in these activities because that defeats the purpose of teaching them to read critically for themselves. Explain that we have a secret ballot in the United States, and your vote is private. Tell them you do not want to influence their decisions. Tell them you want to hear what they have to say instead.

Make sure you black out your colleagues’ names and addresses using a permanent marker before distributing these items to students. Assume older students will attempt to determine names and addresses by holding them up to the light. Cover them well and protect the privacy of your co-workers.

One last caution: Know your students well enough to recognize if one of them has a relative running in one of the races. Steer clear of that race when analyzing campaign literature.

Here are some activities I’ve done in class with campaign materials:

  • After reviewing some mailers and discussing how candidates use them to get their name known and their messages out there, hand out blank paper and markers. Tell students to create their own campaign mailer to introduce themselves. Remind them they only want to say honest and positive things about themselves. They can add a picture if they would like. They need their full names, a statement telling readers what they value or believe in, and three adjectives or phrases describing themselves. Students then present their mailers to the class and they are hung on the wall.
  • Campaign mailers are great for teaching students to read critically for vocabulary. Why does a candidate choose the words used in the mailer? What are the denotative meanings and the connotative meanings? How does one candidate use words to put the opponent in a negative light?
  • Compare mailers on issues. How does the writer use emotion, logic, and an appeal to ethics (pathos, logos, ethos) to convince voters? Are the arguments solid or faulty? Why? Students working in small groups can review both sides of an issue and present their analysis to the class.
  • Students can review and annotate the legislative analyst’s write-up of a proposition for neutrality in writing. What are the elements of writing used to make the analysis neutral? Now research a controversial issue and write about it neutrally.
  • Read the arguments in favor of and opposed to a proposition or measure on the ballot. Take student volunteer readers and ask them to read their sections as though they were doing a TV or radio advertisement on this issue. Evaluate the arguments. Did the writers provide solid arguments? Did they cite evidence to support their arguments? Did they use emotional appeals? Did they include counterarguments? Use this as the start for argumentative writing.
  • Take a vote in class on an issue the day before the election. Record the percentages. The next day, Google the election results. How close was the class’ vote to the actual vote? Explain how precinct reporting works. Have all the precincts reported yet? Have all the mail-in ballots come in yet? If it’s a close race, check back each day until the race is called. Google the map of how people voted in the state, in the county, and in your school’s neck of the woods. You can usually find this on a local news outlet’s website or the county elections office website.

What are some other ways you have taught about elections in your classroom?

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