Social Studies

Election Called ‘A Great Civics Lesson’

By Jessica L. Sandham — November 22, 2000 7 min read
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Eleventh graders in government classes at Millbury Memorial High School had a special reason to keep a close tally of the legal lobs and volleys Democrats and Republicans hit at each other in Florida last week. To them, the eventual outcome would affect not only who becomes the next president of the United States, but also who receives extra credit.

In a pre-election assignment, Roger L. Desrosiers, who teaches government and U.S. history at the 450-student school near Worcester, Mass., asked his students to predict which candidate would win the electoral vote in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Under the rules he established, the student who netted the greatest number of accurate predictions would be awarded 10 bonus points on the next quiz.

As the uncertainty continued late last week about the outcome of the presidential election—which hinged primarily on the fiercely contested Florida results—the students were “asking every day for an update,” Mr. Desrosiers said. “They are listening to the news, getting information from this class, and sharing it with others. This election has been an excellent teaching tool.”

While the election dispute has stirred tempers and evoked concern in some quarters, civics and social studies teachers throughout the country report that the presidential cliffhanger has been the instructional equivalent of Regis Philbin handing them $1 million. Fueled by tangible student interest, they have incorporated breaking news on the contest between Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore into lessons on history and the U.S. Constitution, media literacy, and, in some cases, mathematics.

“It’s one of those situations where teachers don’t have to think about how they’re going to tap into kids’ interests, because they’re already so excited about it,” said Susan Adler, the president of the Washington-based National Council for the Social Studies. “I just talked to one teacher who said that he can’t get his kids to talk about anything else.”

More Than Skin Deep

But even while they cheered the murky outcome of the presidential race as a great jumping-off point for civics instruction, some education experts said that students would be best served by teachers who encouraged them to explore the current electoral results against a backdrop of historical and democratic principles. Those who treat the evolving story simply as a basis for a superficial discussion of current events, they said, are missing a prime opportunity to engage students in deeper issues.

“With any topical issue, I always worry about how quickly a teacher can leave the news and the buzz of the moment and cut to the underlying principles,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, a New York City-based organization that reviews the quality of textbooks, primarily in history and social studies. “We’re looking now at states’ rights and powers, not to mention local powers, which are right in the bedrock of the Constitution. Also, the Electoral College and how we elect a president. Those are the things teachers and students should be thinking about.”

Like many of the picketers outside the courthouse in their native Palm Beach County, Fla., students at the nearby Inlet Grove High School are calling for a revote. But they’re doing it through essay assignments, not with sandwich boards. Angela M. Mazzocco, who teaches government at the 280-student school in Riviera Beach, asked her students to use information from media reports to write a resolution on how to settle the election.

“Overwhelmingly, they want a revote in the county,"Ms. Mazzocco said. “The students are a reflection of what their parents believe.”

At the Houston County Crossroads Center, a 170-student alternative school in central Georgia, the election has sparked an interest in the venerable Electoral College so tangible that it has even spilled over to the adults, said Mary T. Mason, an assistant principal there. Just after the election, she said, a police officer stationed at the school asked her for an explanation of the Electoral College—the electors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia who cast their ballots and officially elect the president.

“I’ve often joked that if Congress had to explain to kids how the Electoral College works, they would change it,” Ms. Mason said. “Now, the kids are saying, ‘I know you explained the Electoral College once for me, but explain it again.’ Learning works best when kids have a need to know the information.”

Interest Waning

On the day after the Nov. 7 election, students at the Epiphany School in New York City buzzed about the presidential stalemate with an excitement “that was almost on the same level as the Yankees-Mets World Series,” said James L. Hayes, the principal of the K-8 Roman Catholic school in midtown Manhattan. Teachers fed off the enthusiasm and made references to the election in classes on civics, mathematics, and even religion, he said.

“We got it into the religious classes by talking about the morality of it all,” Mr. Hayes said. Still, he said last week, student interest dimmed somewhat after much of the process shifted to the courts.

Likewise, Gerald Conlon, a social studies teacher at Atholton High School in Columbia, Md., said last week that his students had been excited the week of the election, “but are now getting jaded because they want a result.”

During a morning class on law and society late last week, one Atholton High student asked, “Are we talking about the election again?” as Mr. Conlon described the agenda for the class period. As the teacher aired part of a news program that outlined the Democratic and Republican positions in the debate over recounting votes by hand in Florida, however, the students seemed to perk up.

When Vice President Gore appeared on the screen, offering to accept the results of a statewide hand recount, 16-year- old Amanda Schmidt viewed the clip of the Democratic nominee with apparent skepticism. “He’s standing right in front of a picture of him and his wife,” she said. “Classic.”

After the students were debriefed on the breaking news, Mr. Conlon asked them to consider the pros and cons of the Electoral College. The teacher also asked whether there might be enough support to do away with the institution and replace it with a straight popular vote after the 2000 presidential election is resolved.

“I think that there needs to be a change when the man with the most popular support in America isn’t going to be president,” said 18-year-old Adam Roth, a senior. He referred to Mr. Gore, who as of last week was leading in the popular vote.

“Yeah, but the small states are going to reject that,” Ms. Schmidt countered, later adding, “I’m so sick of this whole thing.”

In some places, though, students didn’t have time to grow weary of the topic. After devoting a day or two to such issues as the Electoral College and constitutional principles, some schools reported that they were forced by time constraints to move on to new lessons. At Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va., for example, Principal William Oehrlein said that teachers shifted gears to other topics last week because they needed to cover other areas of Virginia’s voluminous state standards.

Headed for History

At the elementary level, teachers say it has become more challenging to maintain student interest as this year’s electoral proceedings have devolved into a discussion of complex legal issues. They are difficult enough for many adults to absorb, the teachers say, and even harder for children who don’t have the life experiences that provide a context for the debate.

Before the election, students in one 5th grade class at the 600- student Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va., participated in a multi- lesson unit on the presidential race. The students were asked to design their own campaign posters, track campaign spending, research and write biographies of the candidates, and calculate various electoral-vote combinations. Through it all, the students expressed a steady interest, said 5th grade teacher Martin R. Cohen, but now “I don’t know that they really understand what to think of it.

“We have kids running around shouting ‘Gore!’ and other kids shouting ‘Bush!’ ” Mr. Martin said. “But for most of these kids, this is the only presidential election they remember. We know it’s unusual, but they don’t.”

Giving students a global or historical context through which they can understand the current electoral confusion is important in helping them see the bigger picture, said Robert S. Leming, the director of “We the People ... the Citizen and the Constitution,” a national education program based at the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif.

Students need to realize that this election will be analyzed in history textbooks, and by civics teachers, for years to come, Mr. Leming said. He noted that an American history textbook dating back to 1837 describes the election of 1800—in which the House of Representatives selected Thomas Jefferson to be president after he and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes—as a time of “solicitude,” or anxiety, for the nation.

Similarly, “it’s a trying time right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Mr. Leming said. “But it certainly is a great civics lesson.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Election Called ‘A Great Civics Lesson’

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