Elementary Civics and the Election Year:Exercises on the Web

 

Linda B. Bennett

To become informed citizens, elementary school students should have opportunities to research how their government is structured, what it does, and how citizens participate in the process. The Internet can be a great tool for locating historical and current information about elections and other political processes. Useful websites provide up-to-date information from a wide variety of sources that can be retrieved within the classroom—sites for governmental agencies, online newspapers, e-mail exchanges, political parties, and civic action groups. Students can use the web to help define and solve problems, think critically, reflect on issues, and communicate their ideas to others. Inquisitive students will use this technology to develop skills needed for participation in a democratic and technologically oriented society.1

This article provides two examples of elementary school civics lessons that use the Web. University of Missouri-Columbia preservice teachers at Ridgeway Elementary School taught early versions of these lessons (the candidates have since changed, for example). Their task was to provide K-5 students with an active learning environment that incorporated Internet technology into civics lessons. These lessons include Internet sites for civics education and address NCSS Strand 0 Civic Ideals & Practices.2

 

Lesson 1: Welcome to the White House

 

Station 1

Students used the White House for Kids home page to locate facts about our current and former presidents, pictures of the White House throughout history, and even pets that have lived there. The White House home page also includes a newsletter, “Inside the White House,” which is published online twice a year. The students were invited to write a letter to the president if they wished to do so (an optional activity that was not graded). Students working at this station asked questions such as: “Who lived in the White House when I was born?”, “Who had a goat for a pet?”, or “Why is it called the green room?” The teacher navigated the website to discover the answers to the children’s questions.

 

Station 2

Students watched video clips about the White House.3 A poster and books about the White House provided information about the rooms within it.4 Enough books were available so that each student could read about a particular room in the White House, who used the room, and why that room was important.5

 

Station 3

Students drew a replica of the front (originally considered the “back”) of the White House, which includes classic architectural shapes and relationships. This station integrated art, mathematics, and social studies.

In closing, the students discovered new information about the White House by asking questions and talking with their peers. Two examples of comments from students were, “I drew a good picture of the White House,” and “I have been to the White House and it was big.” (In response to such a statement, a teacher can discuss with students the difference between a “virtual trip” and a real field trip, pointing out the benefits and limitations of each). This lesson was an opportunity for young children to be “virtual visitors” of the White House and to learn about our nation’s leader.

 

Lesson 2: Who Will Be President?

The selected websites were projected onto a large screen, and the teacher navigated the site, sharing information with the class about the election. Each student was given a set of six 3 x 5 cards. While viewing the information on the screen, students wrote down interesting facts about the candidate, the campaign, or the election—one fact on each card (leaving one side blank). The teacher explained that once the “tour” of the websites was completed, the entire collection of cards would be used for classroom games of the “trivia” variety. After the web “tour,” students wrote a question on each card that corresponded to the fact written on the other side.

In this lesson, every student was actively involved in making the cards for the game. The students discovered facts that were interesting to them about the issues of the campaign. The students had to pay attention because anything the teacher said, and anything on the screen, could potentially be information needed to win at the subsequent card games. A follow-up lesson focused on how students might distinguish between reliable facts (facts that could be accepted at face value, such as a candidate’s party affiliation) and candidates’ opinions (such as statements about public policy that called for further study and research).

 

Challenges of the Web

The Web presents several challenges to elementary educators. First, few young students can type at the keyboard. The first lesson plan solves this problem by using a kid-friendly site where much of the interaction is performed with the mouse, not the keyboard. Also, the class is divided into smaller groups by having three stations, so that the whole class does not have to wait if one student wants to type and send a short “letter to the president” through the White House website. The second lesson plan solves this problem with the use of a projector—the teacher does the navigating, and students look up at a big screen.

A second challenge that the Web presents is how one can assess student learning. It is possible for students to view many websites (or “surf the web” if they are older) and “have nothing to show” after an hour or more of such activity. By the end of the first lesson, students have created a drawing, and they should be able to answer factual questions about the history of the White House and some of its rooms. In the second lesson, students help create the assessment tool itself (the card game) as they read the webpages, each of which contains content that might appear in the later “assessment.”

The web is a valuable resource in part because it allows the teacher to be a partner in creating the “text” that students should learn. We can find websites (Table 1) that actively engage higher level thinking, and design assessments that measure new knowledge gained from the Web, thus helping to prepare our social studies students for active citizenship in the age of the Internet.

 

Notes

1. Joseph A. Braun, Jr., and C. Frederick Risinger, Surfing Social Studies: The Internet Book (Washington DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1999).

2. Center for Civic Education, National Standards for Civics and Government (Calabasas, CA: CCE, 1994), website: civiced.org; National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994), website:
www.socialstudies.org/standards.

3. “Inside the White House,” a video narrated by Morgan Freeman (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1996).

4. “Views of Washington, D.C.,” a poster (Auburn Hills, MI: Teacher’s Discovery, 1997).

5. Betty Debnam, A Kid’s Guide to the White House (Kansas City, MO: Andrews & McMeel, 1997); Kate Waters, The Story of the White House (New York: Scholastic, 1991); Nancy Ann Van Wie, A White House Tour (Palatine Bridge, NY: Max Publications, 1994).

 

About the Author

Linda B. Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and

Instruction in the College of Education at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

 

Table 1: Websites that can be useful for obtaining specific lesson objectives. These and many other links to civic education sites are listed at www.coe.missouri.edu/~esse/ links.html, a portal site at the University of Missouri.

Articulate opinions
www.kidlink.org
The Kidlink Society is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, international organization set up to encourage youth to discuss global topics, work on projects to make the world a better place, and share writing and artwork on the web.

 

Communicate civic ideas
www.unicef.org/voy
UNICEF Voices of Youth, sponsored by the United Nations, is a site where students can discuss and learn about global topics.

 

Discuss current events
www.gsn.org/gsn/proj/newsd/index.html
The Global Schoolhouse links students around the world and organizes projects concerning current public and world issues. It is sponsored by Lightspan.com, an online education company.

 

Find up-to-date news and information
www.pbs.org
PBS Online provides news and information on history, current events, technology, science, and the arts.

 

Inquire and research
lcweb.loc.gov/homepage/lchp.html
The Library of Congress offers research tools, catalogs, services, exhibitions, photographs, and a calendar of events.

 

Learn about the federal government
www.house.gov/Welcome.html
The U.S. House of Representatives site provides links to the members of the House, issues on the floor, reports and votes on bills, and links to other government offices.

 

Observe democracy in action
www.vote-smart.org
Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, tracks the voting records of political leaders and aims to provide nonpartisan information about public policy issues.

 

Take civic action
www.cpn.org/sections/topics/youth/youth.html
Civic Practices Network, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, provides case studies of youth in politics and community service. CPN aims “to bring schooling for active citizenship into the information age.”

 

Address environmental problems
globe.fsl.noaa.gov
Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) is a worldwide network for teachers, students, and scientists to communicate about environmental issues. It is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and other agencies.