Many thanks to Mike Kaechele, national faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education and teacher at Kent Innovation High, as well as Sarah Field, curriculum and program manager at the Buck Institute, for sharing the details of this project.
In the fall of 2008, I asked my 7th- and 8th-grade students a single driving question: How do presidential candidates get buy-in from their voters?
This question launched a three-month project-based learning (PBL) unit where students explored the concepts of persuasion, propaganda, and policy. My 7th graders deeply studied policy issues and then created ad campaigns to educate the “school constituency” about the Democratic and Republican candidates’ positions. In 8th grade, the two sections voted on who would represent the presidential candidate for their class in a live debate and then the rest of the students served as the policy advisors to prepare “Obama” and “McCain.” Though we acknowledged that some candidates might use negative ads or strategies, the one rule that I gave my students was that they had to situate all arguments in the facts of the issues and policies as stated by the candidates themselves.
This election cycle promises to be one of the more divisive elections that we have witnessed. The nominees from the two major parties are both widely disliked, as this data from FiveThirtyEight.com shows. Recent polls show that the majority of people are voting against a candidate that they despise, rather than for a candidate that they believe in. The popularity of "outsider" candidates such as Trump, Sanders, Carson, and Cruz demonstrates that many Americans are fed up with the "business as usual" establishment and want something different. Most of the rhetoric coming out of the two camps focuses on personal attacks, rather than policy. What an opportunity for educators to teach students about political activism, important issues, third parties, and civility!
For this reason, Mike and colleagues have designed the #MyParty16 Election Project. In this PBL unit, students study the U.S. election process by creating their own political parties based on a few core issues. To persuade voters, students create a 30-second campaign ad around one of their core platform beliefs and then hold “primary” elections in their school. At his school, Mike then invites the top 10 parties to give two-minute stump speeches before holding a final election.
All “primary” winner from each school are then invited to compete against other schools across the country through themypartyelection.org web site. The top five candidates will ultimately participate in an online debate via Google Hangout with a celebrity moderator and the national winner will be announced Monday, November 7th—the day before the actual election!
- U.S. History: students could focus on the icons of the two major parties such as FDR and Reagan. They could investigate how the New Deal tried to fix the Great Depression and how Reaganomics tried to fix the stagflation of the 1970’s and then decide which philosophical approach might work best today.
- World History: students study forms of government throughout history and then compare the United States system to others.
- English/Language Arts: students could read novels such as Animal Farm, 1984, or Lord of the Flies and discuss the roles of government in the books and society. The 30-second election ads address Common Core speaking and listening standards.
In addition Mike’s description of the MyParty Election project, teachers can download a full project planner from the Buck Institute. The MyParty Election Site also includes resources, guidelines, video criteria, suggested activities, and more detailed connections to the Common Core Standards.
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