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Teachers are helping students to learn about the presidential race from a variety of resources, both old-school and high-tech.
American election illustration
Monday, October 8, 2012
In the fall of 1976, the fifth-grade class of Lambsburg Elementary School took a break from analyzing the lyrics of “Disco Duck” and doing Fonzie impersonations and held a mock presidential debate.
The Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter race would be the first presidential campaign most of us paid attention to and would be one of the first real news events we would remember many years later. The resignation of Richard Nixon two years earlier had been a passing blip to those of us whose only understanding of the Watergate scandal was that its televised hearings were royally messing with our summertime TV-watching routine.
“Why is this Sam Ervin guy on my screen and where is Gilligan?”
Two years later, we were captivated by the presidential race. One day that fall before the election, we brought the campaign into the classroom and held a debate. Well, it was kind of a debate.
A girl who took President Ford’s side extolled his virtues, then a boy stood up for Carter and recounted how he hoped the challenger’s rural Southern roots would make him an advocate for farmers, which were still plentiful in Carroll County in those days.
That was about it. I don’t remember many details and I can’t recall if we even held a class vote. If we did, I don’t remember whom I voted for. I came from a house divided by political loyalties, so I am sure I was tormented, regardless of how I voted.
I do know that nobody in class shouted down the opposing side. Nobody made snide remarks about the candidates. I don’t remember seeing any political commercials during the local newscasts, much less any vituperative negative ads. Ah, what an innocent age that post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, pre-Iranian hostage crisis era was!
Politics in the classroom
It made me wonder if schools even bother teaching the current presidential race in classrooms these days. Everyone gets so worked up in this hyper-partisan time, when saying one nice, minimally positive thing about the other side (even if it’s “Hey, those shoestrings are really blue!”) is forbidden by your own side and viewed as an act of utter betrayal. It seems like the easy thing to do would be just to ignore the mud and muck of politics and move on to a more enjoyable topic, such as the Boer Wars.
I was totally wrong.
Teachers are studying the current campaign in classrooms. In fact, Virginia’s Standards of Learning require it in some history and social studies classes. After hearing more about the curricula that some teachers are using, I am glad politics is being taught in the classroom. It might be the only way that students ever hear something good about American politics.
“I just gave details about the Electoral College today,” said Danielle Bates, who teaches history and civics/economics classes at Breckinridge Middle School in Roanoke.
She was speaking to me by phone just a few hours before the first presidential debate last Wednesday. This campaign season has provided a valuable backdrop for her eighth-graders, who are required to learn about political parties, campaigns, the role of the media and the Electoral College.
Breckinridge will hold a mock election on Oct. 23.
Bates’ students can learn about the campaign from a variety of resources, both old-school and high-tech. They watch a CNN news program geared toward students, “which brings world issues and world events to their level,” she said.
News magazines, websites and the good ol’ newspaper are other resources for political news.
Students are even using online tools that are available to us ink-stained, screen-blinded wretches — and everybody else. Political data is readily accessible on several high-quality polling sites that provide day-by-day poll numbers from across the country.
So many resources
In my opinion, the best polling sites — which I check daily — are the Real Clear Politics average of all polls, Pollster’s Electoral College and polling breakdowns on The Huffington Post and the very best of all, the FiveThirtyEight site manned by onetime baseball stats geek Nate Silver.
Silver made a fortune playing online poker and developing a data-driven evaluation system for professional baseball players, which he then parlayed into a blog that casts the same, cold, statistical eye on politics. FiveThirtyEight (that’s the total of the Electoral College votes) analyzes hundreds of national and state polls and spits out popular and Electoral College vote probabilities. It truly makes stats nerds hearts go Twitter-patter.
“The biggest difference these days is the technology,” said Amy Cummings, social studies coordinator for Roanoke County Public Schools.
“There are so many interactive things they can do online, from polls to up-to-date information state-to-state. We didn’t have that in 1988 when my mom drove me to the library to make photocopies of news magazines.”
It’s not all polls and debates, though. Cummings showed me a lesson plan for a funny classroom project that asks students to make political hand puppets that will run for president. Students have to write speeches and design campaign posters for their puppets — which sounds a lot like what those super PACs are doing with their own political puppets.
Because President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are spending time and millions of dollars to win Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, students have plenty of reasons to follow the campaigns closely.
Teachers said they receive very little negative feedback from parents who might have strong political views. They said they strive to make sure students learn all sides of an argument, which is the very heart of democracy.
There is one thing students won’t learn in the classroom, however.
“I won’t tell them who I vote for,” said Bates, the middle school teacher. “That drives them crazy.”
Ralph Berrier Jr.’s column runs every other Monday in Extra.
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