Susan Hickenbottom and Margit E. McGuire
Once again a U.S. presidential election is just around the corner, and schools are gearing up for the traditional election unit. Often these units ask students to research the candidates and select the candidate for whom they would vote, or have students research and take a position related to the various party platforms. Despite the fact that these units have been taught for many years, we would argue the impact is negligible over time, especially if the goal is to build commitment to and participation in the electoral process. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress confirmed students lack of understanding of the election process, finding that 74% of 8th graders could not name two ways citizens participate in presidential campaigns.1
What kind of learning experiences would provide elementary students with an understanding ofand a commitment to future participation inthe election process? We offer the following unit outline as one that has been used successfully for the past two presidential elections. The unit is based on a strategy called Storypath, in which the election process is organized into a story.2 The strategy uses the basic components of setting, characters, and plot to organize curriculum into meaningful and memorable learning experiences. In this case we organized the presidential election into a story that follows the basic election process. To make a national election accessible and real to young students, we guided them in the creation of two campaign headquarters (the scene for the Storypath) and the people who work in them (the characters).
When a unit such as this is taught during a national election, students begin to pay attention to election news, which winds its way back into the Storypath. Campaign strategies, candidate speeches, interviews, and advertising become more meaningful because students are immersed in their own story of an election. The Storypath becomes the lived experience, making election news much more significant for young students.3
Creating the Setting
To launch such a unit of study, which is intended for upper elementary and middle school, we ask questions such as:
> What do campaign workers do in a presidential candidates office?
> What kind of jobs might campaign workers have?
> Why do campaign workers need a headquarters?
> What might campaign workers need in an office to do their work?
> What might the interior of a campaign headquarters look like?
Over several days, students begin forming their own answers with the use of resources such as the Constitution of the United States (the qualifications for president), newspaper and TV reports (to get some understanding of the problems and strategies of the campaigns), local campaign materials, the local voting commission, and the League of Women Voters.
Once students have collectively formed an understanding of a campaign headquarters (its function and basic appearance), they are ready to create a replica. The teacher divides the students in half, and each group creates a floor plan and a store front for a campaign headquarters in one part of the classroom. By working as a group, students form a shared sense of place for the story. Students also practice the skills of cooperation, negotiation, and compromise, and they learn about floor plans, measurement, scale, and proportion.
When the headquarters are constructed, students create a word bank to reinforce the concepts introduced in that activity. Using the word bank, students write about their campaign headquarters as though they were writing a news article for the local paper. This writing activity (or one like it) extends students understanding of the place and its purpose and provides an assessment of student learning.
Personalities and Party Platforms
With a sense of place established, students turn their attention to political parties, campaign issues, and candidates. Each group forms a political party on the basis of what it has learned about the Republicans and Democrats. (We discuss how the main parties were established, how they developed their identities, how issues become part of the presidential debate, and how party platforms are negotiated.) Each group decides on a name, slogan, symbol, and platform. For example, the Ecolocrats had an owl for a symbol and the slogan Three Es are our keys, the Es being for Education, Economy, and Environment. The other party, the Deberalcrats, had a beaver as a symbol and the slogan To build a better country. Issues of the day can be introduced for consideration as students decide what to include in their party platforms. Students should not simply replicate Republican, Democratic, or other party platforms, but rather construct their own platforms, borrowing ideas as needed for the national candidates and their party platforms.
Once the parties and platforms are in place, students create characters for each of the campaign personne#151;and for the candidate. They begin by listing the personal characteristics and experience needed for a president and for campaign workers. This process is guided by questions such as:
> What kind of jobs might be needed to run a campaign?
> What kinds of education and life experiences are needed to work in a campaign?
> What personal characteristics would be assets if you were a campaign worker?
> What qualifications are necessary to be president?
> What leadership skills are important to a presidential candidate?
> What other characteristics are important to a presidential candidate?
As the discussion unfolds, the teacher wants to be sure that students consider jobs such as campaign manager, speechwriter, advertiser, accountant, and pollster. Students develop a presidential profile based on their understanding of the role of president and the qualifications, experiences, and personal characteristics necessary for such a role.
Then each student creates a visual representation of a character (see illustration above right) and completes a job application for the character (either a campaign worker or a presidential candidate), depending on what kind of role he or she wants to play in the Storypath. Often a student who a teacher might least expect to aspire to the role of candidate will make that choice. Thus, new opportunities for developing leadership skills are available to students who might never be selected for such a role in a real election for officers in a student council.
Running a Campaign
Students within each political party plan for a primary election, allowing any student to try out the role of presidential candidate. At this point, students learn about registering to vote and the forms that must be filed with the Federal Election Commission. They quickly become the family experts on the election process as they learn about things such as Statement of Candidacy and the Federal Election Commission. They learn about campaigning for the primary election and the voting process. The necessary skills for speech writing, campaign advertising, and researching the issues become an integral process to the Storypath. Reading for information, locating information on the Internet, recognizing author bias, identifying factual information, and forming opinions based on critical examination of relevant data are just a few of the skills that students develop during this part of the unit.
A primary election by secret ballot determines the presidential candidates. Each party must then decide on a vice-presidential candidate and on a campaign strategy for the national election. As often happens in a campaign, candidates have to cope with bad news. The teacher introduces unexpected news flashes such as a candidates unreported taxes, a bankruptcy, or any problem that is suitable for student examination (while explaining that such bad news can surface at any time during a campaign). News flashes force campaign workers and candidates to consider moral and ethical dilemmas as they decide how to best respond to the press. Once these issues are addressed, the campaign workers prepare for a national convention. Students discuss the purpose of a convention, and then each party holds a modified version of one.
As the Storypath election nearsideally coinciding with the national electionstudents participate in presidential and vice-presidential debates. Tension mounts. Other classes in the school can become involved. After our students go through the national conventions, we introduce the candidates to the other five classes in our wing of the school. Each presidential and vice-presidential candidate and their campaign manager give a short speech introducing themselves and their platform to the other classes. We also register students to vote.
The teachers inform all of the classes what electoral votes are assigned to each class. One class may be worth four, and another seven electoral votes. In the process, we explain the workings of the Electoral College. Subsequently, the candidates usually choose to do most of their campaigning in the high-vote classrooms. (This exercise also pushes the other classes to talk about the electoral system.) The students write speeches, do commercials (which they put on video), write flyers, stage debates, do Larry King interviews, put up posters, and conduct opinion polls. (Student interest in TV and the newspaper increases substantially as they watch the real campaign so as to glean strategies for their own campaigns.) Finally, on the Friday before the elections, a rally (an assembly) is held in which the two candidates give their final speeches amid balloons, streamers, and music.
On election day, students sign a log and then vote by secret ballot. A script written by the teachers and read by the school secretary over the intercom updates everyone on the percentage of votes counted and the popular vote tally. To add drama, the teachers can keep the final outcome unknown until the following day so that students can watch the election process unfold in real life and use that as a basis for discussing their own election process in school the next day.
Students observe how both the winners and losers respond to the results of a national election, the losing candidates gracefully (we hope) conceding the election to the winning candidate. Students discuss the various speeches the presidential and other candidates gave, which provide a model for students own conclusion to their election experience. The Storypath election concludes with an inauguration and celebration that includes teachers and students, winners and losers alike.
During this unit of study, students read books and newspapers, watched TV news broadcasts, and asked adults about the election processnot because these were assignments, but because the students had a need to know. When students were asked what they learned from the experiences, they stated, I learned its harder than it looks; I will be a pickier voter; I will study the issues better. Many of the students who took part in this unit of study in 1992 became active in student government in their middle school and high school years. We believe that this Storypath exercise engaged students in a meaningful and powerful learning experience that prepared them to be active, voting citizens in a democratic society.
1. D. E. Hoff, Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students, Education Week (November 24, 1999): 1.
2. Margit E. McGuire, The Presidential Election Storypath (Chicago: Everyday Learning, 1997); Betsy Rupp Fulwiler and Margit E. McGuire, Storypath: Powerful Social Studies Instruction in the Primary Grades, Social Studies and the Young Learner 9, no. 3 (January/February 1997): 4; To learn more about the Storypath strategy see the website
3. The first Storypath on the presidential election that I (S. H.) did was in 1992 in Washington state. I was teaching a classroom that included students from grades four through six.
About the Authors
Susan Hickenbottom is a teacher at Totem Falls Elementary School in Snohomish, Washington, and teaches social studies methods at the University of Washington. Margit E. McGuire is a professor in the School of Education at Seattle University, former president of NCSS, and author of books on the Storypath method.