Sunday, October 25, 2009

Elections Can Be Confusing!!

Helping Our Students Make Sense of Elections

As adults who have watched countless election cycles come and go, we have a pretty good idea about the processes and mechanics of the campaign cycles. We also are able to differentiate between the elections that are simultaneously occurring. What I have discovered in my quarter of a century of working with kids is that this whole political circus that we call elections is a very confusing mess to them!!! We never should forget we are working with 17 and 18 year olds who maybe paid a little attention to the last election, but who completely ignored any previous election that happened in their lifetime. Remember, these guys were only 13 during the Bush/Kerry election and 9 years old during Bush/Gore contest. They don't have a lot of experience to work with here.

To make this worse, many of our textbooks approach the topic of elections in a very unified way. That is to say, the texts lump together the process of presidential and congressional elections and present the topics of finance, polling, campaigning, voter behavior and so on together. When the students finish reading the chapters they have a pretty fair picture, but it is blurred on the edges.

For example, in an essay on Presidential financing, I always have students want to enter into a protracted discussion on PACs. Fine, but PACs should really be discussed in congressional elections since their influence in presidential elections is less vital. On the other hand, in essays on congressional elections I will have students discuss targeting messages to certain groups which can be very relevant in Presidential politics, but much less relevant in House elections, especially in geographically small districts that are somewhat homogeneous. While these mistakes are minor in our our classrooms, on an AP Exam, they can become disastrous leading to low scores on Free Response Questions or incorrectly answered Multiple Choice Questions.

My point here is simple. We need to separate presidential and congressional elections and create lessons, essays, and assignments that will focus on each topic individually. In my classes I intentionally and specifically tell the students, "this week we are working on congressional elections!" Everything for that week to totally focused only on House and Senate elections. We have class discussions, look at the Hippocampus lecture on Congressional Elections, watch Robert Redford's The Candidate, and write essays only on congressional elections. The next week I proclaim Presidential election week and we follow suit. During discussions I always am very careful to delineate congressional vs. presidential politics. (See the blog I use with my own students on this topic: Vix's APGOPO Heights High School)

Now, the experienced viewers are saying to themselves "ah, duh!"; and rightfully so. Most of us who have been around for a while have realized just how confusing the whole election process really is for kids. We have answered student questions time and again that should seem obvious, but in fact really are not. So for you who are just getting into the teaching of government and elections, take heed from us old timers. Never assume the kids understand a thing about the process. Explain every teaching point in fine detail. For while us older, more experienced adults have watched, participated, and voted in many election cycles, for the youngsters in our class, we are awakening them to a whole new and confusing world.

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