Betty B. Peel and Carolyn C. Ledford
The elections in 2000 provide elementary teachers with a wonderful vehicle for teaching about the social studies. Students at the elementary level can learn about elections at the national, state, and local levels using authentic activities. By studying elections and polling place activities, several of the social studies content standards can be addressed, including
2 Time, Continuity, and Change;
3 People, Places, and EnvironmentS; 5 Individuals, Groups, and Institutions; 6 Power, Authority, and Governance; and 0 Civic Ideals and Practices.1 To take full advantage of this opportunity, however, careful planning and gathering of resources are crucial. Students are more likely to understand and be actively engaged in election events if they have thought about them beforehand.
One strategy to introduce a new topic to elementary students is to ask them what they already know about the topic and what they further want to know. What do elementary students know about the upcoming election? In a recent discussion with fourth graders, we recorded the following questions (posed by the teacher) and answers (given by the students).
> How do you elect the president? You go to a booth and you go and vote. People over eighteen can vote.
> Why is voting important? You get to choose who you want. So everybody gets an equal chance. Helps you find the best leader. It goes back to the Revolutionary War. People didnt want a king and queen.
> What is the most important thing to look for in a president? Honesty. Someone who thinks of different matters before making choices. Someone who is fair and doesnt show favoritism. Responsibility. Able to listen to other people before choosing his idea.
> If you had one wish for the president, what would your wish be? Be more honest. Do better about drugs and violence. Help pollution. Improve schools. Stop crime. If we had another flood like Floyd, hed give more money. Spend tax money on important things. Not have a war unless someones trying to take over our country mind own business.
> What do you know about the presidential election thats coming up? George Bush is running. Its in the paper every day. Al Gore is running. Bill Clinton cant be elected again. Gore just won the primary in North Carolina for the Democrats.
> From where did you learn this information? News. Newspaper. Internet. Magazines. Parents. Encyclopedia. Always ask parents. Overhear parents talking and ask questions. Went with mom to vote.
Students responses indicate a natural interest and curiosity about the presidential election process and the ongoing campaigns. By investigating what children already know, teachers can build on students experiences and attempt to address particular interests. Also, after a unit of study, teachers can go back to this initial discussion and compare it to later student writing or conversation to see what knowledge has been learned.
Using the Web
As teachers plan how students will learn about the elections and how they will demonstrate their knowledge, a valuable resource to include is the World Wide Web, available through the Internet. A variety of web locations are designed to permit teachers to integrate election activities in age-appropriate, authentic, and meaningful ways in their daily lessons. Encouraging students to study voting, politics, and campaign issues through the Internet is enticing to them, more so than the more traditional methods of lecture, textbook study, or following newspapers, magazines, radio, and television reports.2 The visual displays and audio tracks facilitate comprehension and allow students to draw on both their linguistic and spatial intelligences as they explore web locations. As students work on activities individually and in teams, they use their intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences.3 In addition, students can use technology to show what they learn about the campaign and the election process by creating visual representations. These diagrams of the concepts, people, documents, and campaign issues allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the structures and processes in ways that linear presentations cannot.4
The activities presented here focus on using the web to engage elementary students in the upcoming election with the ultimate goal of producing informed voters in future elections. Students gather information from multiple sources and use technology to analyze and present their findings. The first two activities involve students gathering information from websites. The remaining activities involve students using technology to analyze information and present what they have learned. Finally, a variety of websites are listed with brief descriptions for teacher resources in planning social studies lessons and activities focused on the particular political and election interests of their students.
I. Who Can Be President?
This activity allows students to examine a primary source, the U.S. Constitution, to learn about the qualifications prescribed for the countrys leader. In addition, students will look beyond what is required to be president and discuss desirable characteristics of our president.
> Examine a website at Cornell University that shows the text of the U.S. Constitution and related items: (www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitutionbillofrights.html). At the site, keep hitting Next a few times to get through the disclaimer forms).
> Brainstorm in small groups to determine desired characteristics of a president, those required by law as well as character traits that students think a president should have.
> Create a character web using Inspiration software to describe each presidential candidate using information from the political party websites (the Republican Party, at 2000gop.com, and the Democratic Party, at www.democrats.org), each presidential candidates website (George W. Bush, at georgewbush.com, and Al Gore, at www.gore2000.org), and Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org).
> Compare and contrast characteristics of the two candidates using a Venn diagram.
II. Campaign Coverage
Students can explore the history of news coverage of campaigns and elections through the website of the Newseum, a private museum in Arlington, Virginia, that features news reporting (www.newseum.org/everyfouryears). It includes age-appropriate articles written by fictional journalists, covering actual, historical events. There are photos of candidates and coverage of major issues. Clips illustrate the changes in the news coverage of presidential races from 1896 to 2000, beginning with reporters telegraphing a speech by President McKinley to their editors, and ending with the twenty-four-hour interactive news coverage of todays campaigns.
> Explore the Newseum web pages about election coverage.
> Create a timeline of changes in media coverage of the campaigns and elections using TimeLiner software.
> Generate an ongoing list of sources through which students hear information about the election.
> Write questions for an interview of the candidate of students choice, and role play the interview.
III. Kids Voting USA Activities
Kids Voting USA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, grassroots organization working with schools and communities to enhance civics education and provide youth with a voting experience at official polls on election day. Some Kids Voting USA materials are free, such as Presidential Debates: A Teachers Guide, on the web at www.kidsvotingusa.org.5 There are many links at this website to teacher resources and to other sites appropriate for use by elementary students. To have access to the full K-12 Kids Voting USA curriculum, Civics Alive, a school or community must become an affiliate of that organization. Descriptions of some of the Kids Voting USA activities follow.
A. Voting Power
In this simulation, students get to make a decision (vote yes or no) on an issue that connects to their lives. Issues addressed include preferences for snacks, play activity, and recess times. Questions challenge young students to consider the importance of their vote by thinking about individual responsibility, cooperation, and civic mindedness.
> Develop a list of issues that are relevant to students at this grade level.
> Brainstorm why the issues are important by creating a web with Inspiration software for each issue.
> Choose one issue from the list above to create a for or against poster.
B. Registering to Vote
Students participate in a simulation where they register and vote online. This activity can be accomplished through links to individual states provided at this location. To enable students to understand that registration is required before voting, teachers may provide voter registration forms for students to complete before voting.
> Complete online registration form.
> Create voter registration forms using a desktop publisher.
> Alphabetize and then categorize registration forms by political parties.
> Log voters before they proceed to vote.
> Discuss the importance and purpose of voter registration requirements.
C. Ballots and Background
Using two ballots, students experience voting with no information and then with adequate information. The first ballot provides only a topic heading with a yes or no option for each, while the second ballot has attachments with information about each topic sufficient for the voter to make an informed decision.
> Create pamphlets (with desktop publishing software) about the importance of being an informed voter.
> Take a poll by asking adults where they get the information needed about candidates before they vote.
> Create a bulletin board or informed voter scrapbook of voting information from news magazines, newspapers, and the Internet. Use the information to develop criteria to evaluate if the source of the information is biased or not.
D. Polling-Place Simulation
This activity provides directions for simulation of a polling place including the duties of all poll workers. Some students experience the roles and duties of poll judges, clerks, and marshals; they learn how representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties monitor the voting process at the polls. The remaining students will complete the simulation activity as voters. Students can design the ballots so that local, state, and national candidates are included.
> Following a mock election, students complete a polling questionnaire to determine their source of information for selecting their candidates.
> Graph the results of the two polls (using The Graph Club software) to allow students to compare the information for each group, determining similarities and differences.
> Discuss the importance of being an informed voter.
Although it was not the focus of this exercise, students discussed how one can evaluate websites for bias. We examined a few sites to determine types of information we could obtain. We discussed how a political party would present a positive image of its candidate and probably a less-than-positive view of the opposing candidate. We also discussed sources such as major news networks, and nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations like the League of Women Voters.
E. Wish Tree
This activity allows students to express their wishes for the leaders of the world.
> Write individual wishes on leaves and attach to a classroom tree.
> Compile a list of class wishes to be sent to appropriate political candidates.
> Tally, categorize, and graph wishes using The Graph Club software.
> The Graph Club (Tom Snyder Productions) is an easy-to-use graphing tool that allows students to gather, sort, classify, and present information.
> TimeLiner (Tom Snyder Productions) allows students to create an illustrated timeline. Students can enter events that occur during the campaign, add visual icons, import graphics, and personalize the time-line to present chronological events.
> Inspiration (Inspiration Software) is a visual-learning tool that students can use to create concept maps, webs, flow charts, and outlines.
Additional Websites for Teachers
> At Dave Leips Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (uselectionatlas.org), the results of previous national elections, from 1860 to 1996, can be examined. Election 2000 furnishes primary election information and candidate information. This site has two sections: Election 2000 and Past Presidential Elections. The first section is divided into Issues and Candidates, Primaries, General Elections, and Mock Elections. Students can vote by state and see the latest vote count for their state.
> ELECnet (www.iupui.edu/~epackard), created by Edward Packard, M.P.A., is a collection of useful links to state, county, and city election offices and related government sites.
> Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org) includes information about candidates and elected officials, including the president, senators, representatives, governors, and state legislators. To help students to compare candidates, the site provides biographies, campaign finances, issue positions, performance evaluations, and voting records to encourage informed decisions about the people who run for office. The American Political Science Association selected Vote Smart as the best political website. It is sponsored by a nonprofit organization, On Common Ground, with founding board members including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Barry Goldwater, and George McGovern.
> WhiteHouse 2000 (www.niu.edu/newsplace/whitehouse.html) provides links to major party candidates, campaign updates and issues, polls, humor, and the history of presidential voting from 1789-1996. The site is sponsored by professor Avi Bass at Northern Illinois University. G
1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).
2. J. Hattler and C. Ledford, More Than a Mock Election: Using the Internet to Connect Children to the 96 Election, Social Studies and the Young Learner 9 (1996): 30-32.
3. Howard Gardner, Leading Minds (New York: Basic Books, 1995); R. Sternberg, What Does It Mean to be Smart? Educational Leadership 54 (1997): 20 24.
4. J. Braun, P. Fernlund, and C. White, Technology Tools in Social Studies Curriculum (Wilsonville, OR: Franklin Beedle, 1998).
5. Presidential Debates: A Teachers Guide was published by the Commission on Presidential Debates and is also available on its website at www.debates.org.
About the Authors
Betty B. Peel and Carolyn C. Ledford are associate professors in the School of Education at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.