“Who are you going to vote for?” This question was reverberating in my classroom every period five days a week. When I was asked for the thousandth time, I decided to turn this question into a teachable moment. Little did I know how this decision would expand and take on a life of its own.
To put all this into context, I don’t share my political views or my voting decisions with anyone. A secret ballot is just that! So I started out our exploration of the election choices with that statement. My students really didn’t understand what a secret ballot meant or why this right is important. Our first teachable moment occurred. My class researched and reported on voter’s rights, explained what a secret ballot is, how our country accomplishes this, and why a private ballot is important. I watched as understanding dawned and my students prepared for a quick English debate on the topic. One side was pro and the other was con. As the representatives of each side shared their knowledge and argued for their position, the rest of the class moved to the side they agreed with on a continuum scale. The farther you moved in one direction, the more you agreed with that presenter’s position. When we finished the debate, the students sat down and wrote about why they were standing where they finished and why.
Woo Hoo! Research, analysis of non-fiction text, verbal presentation of ideas, and writing to support a claim — all wrapped into one teachable moment. We were on a roll.
Some students, I’m sure, believed they were getting out of classwork when they asked about how citizens voted and the Electoral College. A simple copy of my ballot – not filled out of course – a discussion of the controversy of the hanging chad in Florida affecting Al Gore and President George W. Bush’s election, and a PowerPoint showing the evolution of the voting machine and current practices quickly answered the first part of the question about how a person voted.
Then an astute student asked about Donald Trump’s statements that the election was rigged. The student even brought in articles and video discussing his position. This lead to another lively discussion and another student asking about the proposed initiative that picture ID be required to vote in an election. A different student brought in articles from the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post Intelligencer concerning the inclusion of a flyer with the ballots in Pierce county telling voters the ballots had to be turned in by November 4, 2016. The student wanted to know if that was legal when the actual election date was November 8, 2016. Splitting the students into small groups according to their interest in the topics, and requesting them to create a presentation about their topic and the information they found, worked out beautifully.
As the teacher, I didn’t need to do much. I simply facilitated the discussion and allowed the students to share their responses, research what they had found to support their ideas, and make sure the discussions were calm and factual rather than vitriolic and attacking.
With all this going on we also talked about the Electoral College, why it was created, and if it met the purpose of its original intent. To demonstrate what would happen if elections were determined by popular vote, each member in the class became a state with a specified number of residents. I don’t have fifty students in my classes, so we combined classes to make up the numbers. Then the students submitted a secret ballot with their state and the candidate of their choice. As a class we counted the votes, and looked at the outcome comparing the popular vote numbers vs. the Electoral College numbers. The “That’s not fair!” cries filled the room when the students representing Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, and South Dakota realized they didn’t really have any say in who was elected when an election was decided by popular vote. Did I mention the “We won!” dance California, Florida, and Texas did based on popular vote results. Watching the understanding dawn about the role of the Electoral College was heartwarming.
One theme of all this was students guiding their learning. I was amazed when the students proposed that the class create a large sign with all the states drawn on it. The idea was that every two to three days the individuals assigned the states would update the polling results to analyze the impact of debates and stumping by the candidates. The recent changes in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina support have sparked a fascinating conversation among the students. It has lead them to analyze campaign tactics, the debates, and the role of the media in the election.
For me analyzing the debates was a highlight. Half the class watched the debates on their Chromebooks while the other half listened to the debates as a radio broadcast. Then each student was required to choose the candidate they thought won and write an essay offering evidence to support their opinion and analysis of the debates. What was fascinating was the discussion that followed about how the visual vs. the voice-only presentations influenced their opinions. Several students remarked that they hadn’t realized how much individuals relied on nonverbal communication to make a decision. The voice-only group strongly pointed out that all they had was the ideas and the voices to work with, so they felt they had a cleaner, more unbiased experience. The notes I took during the students’ discussions will be used in a future unit about persuasive and argumentative writing techniques. I can’t wait!
So, how should we wrap this all up so it’s meaningful for the students and pulls all the information together? My solution was to ask the students to look over the two platforms and discuss what these mean for the candidates and the voters. Following this analysis, the students were asked to identify the key topics addressed in the platforms. We did this together as a class. Then the assignment was to take on the role of a candidate representing a new party and to write his/her party’s platform on five issues the student felt were key to the future of our nation. The students are still working on this as well as tracking the poll changes and voluntarily updating the class each day on the latest news about the campaigns and candidates. My students are reading newspapers, watching the news, reading magazine articles, and are engaged in gathering information with an enthusiasm that I have never seen before.
My students don’t know it, but they are going to vote on the https://newsela.com website on November 1, 2016, as the culminating activity for this incredible exploration in my classroom. A results party on November 8 after the polls close may be in the offing.
So, who am I going to vote for? My students don’t ask me anymore. Instead, they are too busy talking with each other about who the best candidate is, what they would do if they could vote, and the latest news/scandal about the candidates. I can’t wait for these sophomores to turn eighteen. A new, informed, and powerful voting block is going to arrive on the scene from Ilwaco High School!