Fab Web Sites on the 2008 Presidential Election

The 2008 Presidential race has kids psyched. To help teachers harness the excitement, log on here.

Teachers live for the “teachable moments”—those opportunities to connect their subject content to events taking place beyond the classroom. They can occur spontaneously, lucky occasions to bring the curriculum to life grabbed on the fly. In other instances, a teachable moment looms large. In hundreds of thousands of classrooms nationwide, we will share such an extraordinary opportunity this fall—the 2008 presidential election. While our students won’t be casting a ballot themselves come November, there are many ways in which we can engage them in the process and, along the way, inspire a new generation of voters. I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be an American history teacher. The electoral process has been part of my curriculum for the past 15 years, but it has a different feel this time. In years in which we don’t choose a president, of course, it’s more of a struggle to re-create the buzz surrounding an actual election. But among my students, there’s a particular excitement about this year’s political process, which began during the historic primary season. Regardless of personal party affiliation, this event has really captured kids’ attention—a window of opportunity that all teachers should consider taking advantage of this fall.

Illustration by Fred Harper

There are obvious connections to the social studies curriculum, but the election provides a variety of cross-curricular opportunities, as well. In math class, for example, students could make comparisons between the popular vote and totals for the electoral college. Candidates’ speeches and the debates could be examined in the context of language arts and speech curricula. Science classrooms could consider the energy plans of the candidates and how their respective platforms impact the environment or relate to biomedical ethics. The Internet has figured big this political season—and how. The YouTube debates are just one example of the Web’s revolutionary impact on the election process, but technology has affected how we teach it, too. Incredible amounts of data are available to us at the click of a mouse, and interactive simulations make a game of involving students as prospective voters or even taking on the role of presidential candidate themselves. One of the reasons I love teaching around an election is making that connection between the present and the past. The ’08 contest is playing out in real time before our students’ eyes, but without an understanding of events past, the current race has little depth. I can’t imagine conveying the importance of televised debates, for instance, without playing a clip of the 1960 faceoff between Nixon and Kennedy. A discussion of polling and the process of predicting an election’s outcome would be incomplete without showing students that iconic photo of Truman holding the newspaper proclaiming Dewey’s victory. Teachers today have a vast store of images, video, and multimedia available online, resources that can help teach current events with a historical context—and make it fun. Following are a few related Web resources that will help you make the most of this election in your classroom. Budget Hero americanpublicmedia.publicradio.org/engage08/budgethero One of the most challenging aspects of the president’s job: managing the federal budget. He or she must decide how to allocate $3.3 trillion dollars fairly—and keep everyone content. This simulation, from American Public Media and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, lets students take the federal budget for a test-drive. A colorful, animated interface provides players with the data to help them make those tough decisions, such as how much to allocate toward national defense—and what about health care? A cool bar graph mimicking an urban skyline displays your progress. With the click of a button, you can see how your budget will impact the future, 10 years down the road. An attractive and fun site, Budget Hero would be ideal for a high school government or economics class. CNN Student News www.cnn.com/studentnews News about the candidates leading up to the election changes fast. Students need concise information presented in a format that also explains the basic elements of the process. CNN Student News, a 10-minute news program, fills the bill with content created specifically for kids and updated every day throughout the academic year. Students are among those invited to participate in iReport, CNN’s citizen journalism initiative. Consider contributing a student or class-created video about the election to Student News’s iReport feature, “Talking Democracy.” The free video can be viewed on the Web page or you can subscribe via the CNN Student News podcast. Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index cagle.msnbc.com Editorial cartoons are a great way to spark a discussion of current events in the classroom. Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index is an excellent resource for doing just that and one that I’ve used for many years. The comprehensive set of editorial cartoons, updated daily, is easily searchable by topic and includes a special educator section with lesson plans and tips on how to analyze a political cartoon in class. With permission of the site, teachers are free to use these cartoons for classroom instruction. For me, editorial cartoons have been my most successful strategy in teaching the concept of inference to my students. eLECTIONS www.ciconline.org/eLECTIONS My students love this free 3-D multimedia online game in which they make tough decisions in their run for the White House. In this engaging simulation, created by Cable in the Classroom in partnership with CNN Student News, C-SPAN, and the History Channel, students can play alone against the computer or run against an opponent. An animated George Washington stands by to guide players through the process. Players study the issues, then create their platform, taking turns in analyzing polling data, fund-raising, and planning their campaign, with high quality videos from CNN, C-SPAN and the cable station partners providing further insight. With eLECTIONS, you have the option of saving the game for later play. Users can also receive a printout at the completion of the game to analyze their decisions. In the past, my students have gone home to play a round against their parents! Living Room Candidate www.livingroomcandidate.org It wouldn’t be a modern presidential race without an avalanche of political ads on television. This site, created by the Museum of the Moving Image, features a collection of TV campaign ads from 1952 to 2004. Clips are searchable by year, type of commercial, and political issue. My students particularly love the animated “I Like Ike” spots. You can view the entire commercial directly on the Web page or read the written transcript. Background is provided on each ad, along with links to other spots related by subject, year, or candidate. A special section devoted to the “Desktop Candidate” describes the emerging role of the Internet starting with the 2004 election. Be sure to check out the “For Teachers” link to access the prepared lesson plans. Using this site, I have my students watch a variety of ads before they create their own TV spot for Abraham Lincoln in his 1860 bid for the White House. Living Room Candidate is ideal for teaching propaganda techniques anytime throughout the year. Select A Candidate americanpublicmedia.publicradio.org/engage08/selectacandidate Typically, my junior high students enter the classroom supporting a candidate or political party based on viewpoints they hear at home. This Web site from American Public Media asks users to answer some basic questions on key issues using actual quotes from the candidates without connecting the quote to the candidate. A subsequent report matches your answers with the candidate that best fits your views. The results often shock students and, if nothing else, lead to some intriguing discussion. 270 to Win www.270towin.com The electoral college is one of the most fascinating, and yet confusing, aspects of any presidential election. Many students assume the candidate with the most popular votes becomes president, but as we saw with the 2000 election, this is not always the case. The focal point here is an interactive map predicting the current election’s outcome based on polling data. Students can then modify the map by changing the winner of any state and see the impact on running totals at the bottom of the map. Students could also create an electoral college map from scratch based on their own selections. In one exercise, I ask my students to determine the least number of states it would take to win the presidency. Electoral college results are available in map format dating all the way back to 1789. Other features of 270 to Win include a quiz on the electoral college and a blog to keep you updated on the most recent information about the upcoming vote. The interactive map also makes this a great tool for teachers using interactive whiteboards. These are just a few of the great resources available online to help you leverage the excitement this fall. What better way to demonstrate the relevance of your subject content than connecting it to the biggest event of the year.
The 2007/2008 Missouri Teacher of the Year, Eric Langhorst is an eighth-grade American history teacher at South Valley Junior High School in Liberty, MO. He hosts the Speaking of History podcast at www.speakingofhistory.blogspot.com.

Official Ballot

Fill in the oval next to the activity you would like to use with your students to really get them “in the game” this election season. If you make a mistake you may request a new ballot. Do not erase! Do you have high school seniors? Consider bringing in voter registration cards and have them register in class. When I taught high school government, I would have all eligible students register to vote and it really made an impact. For years I’ve had my kids cast their ballots in a “student vote” program. Check with your state election office to learn about your local initiative. It’s a great way to support student participation and let everyone share in the excitement of election day. Students who know they will be absent can even fill out an absentee ballot. Check with your local election board to see if there is anything you and your students could do to help on election day. After contacting our local board, I’ve arranged for some of my students to serve as greeters at polling places. Local youth groups also volunteer to help with the loading and unloading of ballots and equipment.

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