3 Presidential Election Day Activities for Middle School and High School Students

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With another presidential election just weeks away, social studies teachers will no doubt want to brainstorm ways to engage students in the process. From mock elections to research projects on key issues, there are a lot of great ways to not only get students to pay attention to who’s leading in the polls but also to really understand the implications of the policy ideas put forth by the candidates: Republican candidate President Donald Trump, and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

We have also seen great change in the last two decades in the roles of the traditional and social media in the election process, and students should understand how these factors impact their perceptions of candidates.

Below is a list of ways that some of my colleagues and I have tried to stir student passion for our election process over the years. With a bit of planning, you can use different election education resources to increase student awareness and create a great sense of collective involvement in 2020.

Classroom Election Activities & Lesson Plan Ideas

1. Mock Presidential Debates

In fall 1992, teachers in my department decided that the two newest teachers (of which I was one) would be perfect to play the roles of Republican incumbent President George H. W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in mock debates to be held during the high school's three lunch periods. I met with my colleague several times before the debates to decide on our roles (I played Clinton), as well as the issues we would debate and the format. On the day of the debates, we simply set up microphones in the cafeteria, and after giving students an opportunity to eat lunch, we proceeded to debate for about 30 minutes. We had a third colleague who moderated, and we left time for student questions as well.

Issues that were important in 1992 are just as pertinent now: the proper role of government in dealing with economic inequality, the size and scope of the military budget, and the makeup of the Supreme Court. These issues comprised the meat of the debate, but in playing the role of Clinton, I had to point out that Bush had said, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” The young people watching enjoyed the personal jabs more than the substantive issues—just like these days!

For this sort of activity to be successful, you need teachers who will really get into their roles and act the part, and you also need to focus on issues that are of student interest. Keep the responses relatively short—lengthy diatribes over policy will fall flat. Finally, always allow students to get involved as much as possible, whether to ask questions or offer their opinions.

You can use this rubric to assess your students’ debate performance.

2. "Who Should I Vote For?" Surveys

For classroom voting activities during each election cycle, you can find a variety of websites—such as iSideWith—that help students identify the candidate they align with most based on their responses to questions about important issues. In 2016, our school already was 1:1 with iPads, so I simply posted a link to a survey on my class website and allowed students to answer the questions at their own pace. In order to ensure their understanding, I also included links to short videos that explained complex issues such as social security, immigration policies, and tax reform. I plan to take similar steps for the 2020 election. Most of these websites will conclude the survey by identifying the candidate who best aligns with the student’s views. It can be very enlightening for students when they realize that a candidate they either do not know anything about or whom they personally dislike is the candidate they align with most based on policy issues alone.

If you try incorporating these surveys into your curriculum, be sure to fully research the different websites available. It is critical that you use a resource that is independent of any political party or policy position. In our roles, we should always strive to expose students to as many ideas and options as possible and allow them to make decisions and choices themselves. It doesn’t matter what I think; it matters that we get the students to think. A biased or unbalanced approach is not educational; it is political. It's also essential to make sure that the election teaching materials you use are age appropriate. For older students, detailed descriptions of the effects of policy ideas are essential, and you will find an ample supply of resources that do just that. For younger students, this may overwhelm them and lead many to tune out. Find the online resource that best fits your students.

3. Mock Presidential Elections

The first time that colleagues and I held a school-wide mock election, we literally made 2,000 paper ballots and had students drop their completed ballots in a box during their lunch period. In 2020, we are being far more efficient—and paperless!

Being a 1:1 iPad district will allow for a different approach to our mock election. We are sending out a student survey using a Google form and having students as well as staff vote for their candidate of choice. To make it more realistic, one of our teachers has grouped the “voters” by their last names into different “states,” so that we will get both a popular vote and electoral vote tally. We will also push out nonpartisan analyses of platforms for each party so that students have as wide a view as possible of the candidates. We believe this approach will result in a high level of student involvement.

Finally, in our department we are lucky to have a teacher who does amazing work with large bulletin boards. This year, she created a display that she updated based on the primaries for both Democrats and Republicans. Each candidate was represented by a different color car on a racing track, and the leader on the track represented the candidate with the most delegates at the time. Students have stopped by constantly to look and especially loved the caption of “out of gas” that the teacher placed on a car when a candidate dropped out of the race.

Students love creativity, and most want to learn more as our presidential elections approach. Going the extra distance to engage them in the process will create a sense of civic discourse and will naturally lead to discussions in individual classrooms.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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For additional classroom activities and resources, check out HMH’s newest presidential election 2020 sites for students in Grades K–5 and Grades 6–12. You will find relevant, age-appropriate election resources that can be used in the classroom. As important milestones and events evolve throughout this election season, HMH is committed to providing classrooms nonbiased and reliable resources to educate and foster today’s young citizens.

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