Hot on the Campaign Trail! Teaching Social Studies Through Drama

 

Mary Kathleen Barnes

“Do I laugh or cry?”

I wondered as I contemplated the social studies assessments my third graders had just completed.

Question: What are the requirements to become President of the United States?

Some of the students’ answers:

n I think you have to have a dog and a cat.

n You have to be married.

n You have to live in a white house.

We had spent weeks studying a unit called “Steps on the Road to the White House,” and we had drawn many “genuine” examples from the presidential election campaign which was then in full swing. So how was it that so many of my students just did not “get it”?

I thought about our class discussions about how an individual becomes president. I thought about the ongoing events in the Dole vs. Clinton election that we shared in class in an effort to relate the unit to actual campaign events. And I thought about my careful explanations of the new vocabulary words—convention, candidate, delegate, primary, etc.—words which I reluctantly admitted had little real meaning to my students. In spite of all these efforts, it was painfully evident that my students had not developed any real understanding of the election process.

How could I make political events and processes meaningful to the lives of third graders? Although the election process is included in nearly every social studies curriculum, with congressional elections occurring every two years and the presidential election only once every four years, the entire election process seems remote, especially in non-election years.

Increasingly, students must pass statewide proficiency tests which require a comprehensive understanding of government and the election process. Even without the pressure of the proficiency tests, a basic understanding of the structure of our government and election process is essential in educating tomorrow’s citizens and leaders. According to the National Council for the Social Studies position statement on Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies, instruction must be much more than the presentation and memorization of factual information. The curriculum must provide opportunities for students to “connect what they are learning to their prior knowledge and experience, to think critically and creatively about it, and to use it in authentic application situations.”1

I wondered how I could meet the challenge of making the political process relevant and meaningful. How could I make it exciting and fun? I decided to incorporate some role drama into the classroom.

In role drama, teachers set up imagined situations which students and teachers enter together, in role, to explore events, issues, and relationships...It is a powerful method of teaching that aims at promoting a change of understanding or insight for the participant...exploring the thoughts and feelings of another person by responding and behaving as that person would in a given situation.2

Drama provides students with access to a world where they can actively experience what we want them to learn.
Dramatic experiences can be shaped to meet a variety of developmental needs by providing students with opportunities to encounter new situations and make “rea#148; decisions, based upon their insights and ideas. “Drama is no longer seen only as another branch of art education, but as a unique teaching tool, vital in language development, and invaluable as a method in exploration of other subject areas.”3

We spent about three weeks participating in the political processes through a series of drama experiences, which gave students opportunities to explore a variety of roles, responsibilities, and perspectives. I will describe each in terms of a “drama frame,” which provides an overview of the setting and tasks assigned.

Since my students did not have a clear understanding of what “government” actually is, I began our drama with the formation of a new government.

 

Frame One: Creating a Government

I asked the students to imagine we were living in a country where the citizens were very unhappy. We lived under the reign of a king who imposed heavy taxes and restricted religious and other freedoms. The citizens of this make believe country (my students) decided to leave and form a new country where they could live together in freedom and happiness. After we arrived in our new country, I said to the students, “Well, since we’re now free, we probably don’t need any laws. After all, if you’re free, that means that you can do whatever you want, doesn’t it?” Some children nodded their heads in agreement, but as the discussion continued, many started to have second thoughts about what freedom really meant and why laws are necessary.

 

Frame Two:
Representatives of the People

I asked the students to imagine they had been selected by their respective villages and towns to help create the laws for our new country. The students shared their thoughts on important qualifications for this job. Then each student told the group why he/she had been selected by the people in their village. Jonathon said he was selected because he was honest; Laura because her villagers liked her ability to see both sides of a situation. Eric’s people had chosen him because they knew he wouldn’t be easily persuaded if he believed he was right. Eve said her village trusted her to do what was best for everyone, not just what she might want individually.

 

Frame Three:
The Legislative Branch

I divided the students into groups of four or five and instructed them to propose some laws for their new country. I explained that before their ideas became laws, they would have to be voted on and passed by Congress. Lively discussion ensued as the students eagerly went about this task. I announced that Congress would convene that afternoon, and the different committees could then present their bills.

When we reconvened to discuss the various bills, I briefly explained the structure of the Congress, the House, and the Senate. As we proceeded, it became clear to all that this would be a very time-consuming endeavor. The students wanted to discuss in detail the advantages and disadvantages of each proposed bill. I directed the committees to select only one of their proposals to present to Congress. Some of the groups had a clear priority, but others struggled with the need to decide on a single proposal.

We finally succeeded, after much debate and discussion, in passing five laws. One proposal stated “you have to be nice to people and treat people with respect.” This proposal generated considerable discussion. While most students agreed this was a good idea, many argued it should not be a law. Scott said, “You shouldn’t get arrested just because you weren’t nice to someone.” Ultimately the students passed a resolution stating that respect for others and kindness were important values in our country.

After Congress adjourned, we discussed how difficult it is to develop bills in committees with everyone in agreement, and how much more difficult it is to get them passed in Congress. We talked about what happens when Congress has difficulty coming to an agreement, and how it might be helpful to have another perspective on the proposed bills. Further discussions ensued related to the office of the presidency. Several students suggested it might be helpful to have one person who could represent our country on visits to other nations because “everyone in Congress can’t go.”

 

Frame Four: The Judicial Branch

Our classroom Congress had just passed a law which specified very strict penalties for stealing. I wanted my students to understand that legal issues are not always black and white; that proper use of laws sometimes requires additional interpretation. I read a fictitious newspaper account of a young boy who was arrested for stealing food from a local market. He had no money and desperately needed food because his mother (who was very ill) and his infant sister were nearly starving.

According to our newly-passed law, the boy would be sentenced to 25 years in jail. The students expressed shock and concern over the plight of this boy, and began to question their “no stealing” law. Most students felt that the penalty was too harsh, given the extenuating circumstances, and considerable discussion ensued. We then discussed the importance of having judges who could interpret the intent of the laws and consider individual circumstances. We “appointed” a judge and held a short trial in which the boy could plead his case.

 

Frame Five: The Executive Branch

Many students volunteered for the role of “leader.” We discussed some of the responsibilities of the country’s leader. The students suggested that the “President” travel to other countries to “tell about our country” or “be the one who makes decisions that have to be made fast, like if someone was attacking us.” Several students suggested that the President should have a say on which laws get passed for the country.

We talked about how each person might decide whether they wanted to be a candidate for the job of president and we discussed important qualities for a president. Ultimately, five students decided that they would campaign for president. We divided the class into five campaign groups. Each group had five roles: a campaign manager who arranged where speeches would be held; a speech writer who wrote speeches appropriate to the interests of the various audiences; a press secretary who talked to reporters and presented the candidate in a favorable manner; a volunteer who prepared signs, bumper stickers, banners, etc.; and a reporter who gathered information, both positive and negative, about the candidate. Each group member helped generate campaign materials. We discussed the importance of “catchy” campaign slogans. The candidates presented their speeches and their group members presented the campaign materials they had developed.

 

Frame Six: Two Political Parties

After the speeches, we discussed the two major political parties, and the impact of an independent party on an election. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of the two parties. I purposely opted to avoid having students “declare” their candidate’s party, because many children voiced strong allegiance to one particular party. Party affiliation was de-emphasized because I wanted the students to make choices based upon their own critical thinking (rather than on comments they might have heard at home about Democrats, Republicans, or others).

 

Frame Seven: The Primary Election

We conducted a primary election. Amanda and Scott were clearly the “front-runners”; three candidates received only marginal support. We discussed possible reasons for the uneven primary results, what a “dark horse” candidate is, and how candidates might decide to “drop out of the running.” We discussed how some candidates “throw their support” to another candidate when they decide to withdraw themselves. At this point, however, none of the five candidates wanted to drop out.

 

Frame Eight: Preparing for the Convention

I explained the purpose of a convention and we began our preparations. Each group was assigned to write a nominating speech for their candidate, a speech for their candidate to present, a television commercial, a cheer or short chant of support, and a short video about their candidate’s life.

 

Frame Nine: The Convention

Each student in the class drew a slip of paper indicating the name of a state and the number of convention delegates assigned. After nominating speeches and candidate speeches were presented, the “delegates” were given 5-10 minutes to “work the floor” to try to convince other delegates to support their candidate. The candidates with the fewest number of supporters were actively lobbied to withdraw from the race and pledge their delegates to a frontrunner. Jonathan was offered extra lunch box treats if he would pledge his delegates to Amanda. Then votes were finally cast and tallied. After the election results were announced and a running mate was selected, we did a “balloon drop,” releasing the many balloons which we had suspended from the ceiling in large plastic bags.

 

Frame Ten: The Campaign

We now needed to create two additional roles, that of an opposing presidential and vice-presidential candidate. The students were divided into groups of three: one person was to be the candidate (either presidential or vice-presidential candidate), one was to be a reporter, and the third was to be the anchor person on the evening news. Their task was to develop a short news story for the evening news. The students were instructed to think about the setting for their news story. Which voter block would the candidate be addressing (i.e., business owners, retirement communities, university students)? How would the candidate’s speeches differ with different groups of voters?

 

Frame Eleven: The Campaign Workers

The students assumed the role of campaign workers again. I asked them to develop advertising material for their candidates. They busily designed hats, buttons, badges, bumper stickers and signs. For one week, they also had the opportunity to “stump” for their candidates in order to convince others in the class to vote for them. The election was held by secret ballot and the votes were tallied. The winners were announced.

 

Frame Twelve: The Electoral College

Students randomly drew slips of paper stating the name of a state and the number of electoral votes assigned. The students cast their votes and “confirmed” the popular vote. We discussed the origins of the Electoral College and its purpose today.

 

Dramatic Effects

During the three weeks we used drama to experience different roles and perspectives, my students began to develop a genuine understanding of what government is and how some of its processes work. They began to understand and use the vocabulary that is unique to the political world, words such as “mudslinging,” “campaigning,” and “delegation.” They were able to think critically about how and why campaign decisions are made, and to discuss political campaign involvement from several perspectives. They arrived at this more comprehensive understanding by actually experiencing participation in a campaign, rather than merely talking about it.

Drama gave students access to new experiences and extended their thinking far beyond what they previously knew. Enthusiasm and excitement ran high throughout the three week period. Many students took time to prepare banners and signs at home, and students were often seen excitedly discussing campaign strategies during recess.

Now, when I ask my students to tell me what they have learned about the election process or about our government, I hear answers like:

 

n I learned that it’s really important to campaign in certain states, like California and Ohio and Florida. That can make the difference between winning and losing the election.

n I learned that it takes a lot of hard work to keep everything organized, like making sure your campaign manager is putting your signs up in the right places, or setting up lots of speeches.

n I learned how hard it is to write all those speeches to get people to want to vote for you.

n I learned that getting everyone to agree on certain laws takes a lot of time.

n I learned how it feels to have people saying that they shouldn’t vote for you, that you won’t do a good job.

 

Drama definitely helped my students come a long, long way on that campaign trail! v

 

Notes

1. National Council for the Social Studies. “A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy.” Social Education 57, 5 (September 1993): 213-223.

2. Carole Tarlington and Patrick Verriour, Role Drama (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991): 9.

3. Cecily O’Neill and Alan Lambert, Drama Structures (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1982): 7.

 

Mary Kathleen Barnes, who is currently a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University, has been an elementary school teacher for four years.