Teachers Turn to Online Sources For Election Background

By Michelle Galley — September 27, 2000 5 min read

When social studies teacher Franklin Foster began planning the election unit for his U.S. history class this year, he found a set of lesson plans that fit his needs perfectly. But he didn’t come across the materials by searching through textbooks, newspapers, or handbooks on supplementary curriculum.

Instead, he went online and discovered an engaging Web site dedicated to the vice presidency—an office generally glossed over in the broader discussion of this November’s presidential election.

“Who knows about the vice presidency, except that it is a way to get to the presidency?” asked Mr. Foster, who teaches at the 890-student Allen County High School in Scottsville, Ky.

In a year when campaign apathy threatens to overtake many students, the rise of Web-based curriculum materials on federal elections comes as good news, many educators say. With a humming economy and no single compelling issue rallying voters and their children, the World Wide Web offers an entertaining format for digging into the heart of the democratic process.

“If you can start early—if you can pique a kids interest in their formative years—it will result in a life of political activism,” said Sue Bastian, the president of Teaching Matters, a professional-development organization in New York City that has created a civics education package, called “Election Connection,” that combines printed lesson plans and the Internet. The group plans to distribute its curriculum this fall to 20 middle schools in the city.

Working in a more traditional format, meanwhile, the Weekly Reader Corp., the publisher of a long-established newsmagazine for children, hopes to grab the attention of an even younger audience.

The company has prepared a K-2 election curriculum that includes colorful posters of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican nominee for president, and Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, and an inside peek at the White House. Weekly Reader’s lesson plan covers such basic topics as who can become president and the job description for the nations commander-in- chief.

Trickle Up Effect

As Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore enter the final stretch of the campaign, both of them continue to declare education a top priority. While neither candidate is talking about issues as detailed as curriculum, the two have spent a lot of time in schools this year courting students, teachers, and public opinion in general.

Both men are focusing on such prominent education issues such as accountability, teacher quality, and access to higher education. Mr. Gore has proposed spending $115 billion over 10 years on such varied education items as smaller classes and higher teacher pay, while Mr. Bush has proposed spending nearly $50 billion over a decade on education efforts, including a major reading initiative and federally funded vouchers for students in chronically failing schools.

The two candidates also have their own youth-oriented Web pages, complete with trivia, games, and video clips.

One impetus for politicians school visits is the sense that if students get excited enough about an election, parents will become more involved as well. That scenario is precisely what played out in New Yorks state and federal elections two years ago, Ms. Bastian said. She remembers students who had recently immigrated to the United States teaching their parents about the democratic process—what she called the “trickle-up effect.”

“If kids get involved, some of the parents will find it easier to go and vote,” she said.

Back in Kentucky, Mr. Foster said he will be battling apathy among his students this fall because the economy is good, and the average citizen in his small town has few complaints. “The average, run-of-the- mill person is not all that very excited about this election,” he said.

With that in mind, he has tapped into a Web site that Centre College in Danville, Ky., created in conjunction with the vice presidential debate scheduled to be held there Oct. 5. The site offers information on the office of the vice president, the past vice presidents, and related trivia.

Mr. Foster said using the Internet allows his students to work at their own pace, and the structure of the Centre College site meshes perfectly with the semesters tight schedule. In just a few months, he needs to cover everything from the post- Civil War Reconstruction period to the present. “I can’t go into extreme detail and do justice to other quite important areas,” he said.

More sites like Centre Colleges are popping up on the Internet this year than ever before, said Susan Adler, the president of the Washington-based National Council for the Social Studies. And most online materials are more current than textbooks, which is important for students learning about the issues and candidates in this year’s presidential race.

“We want to engage the students in what the candidates are saying now,” Ms. Adler said. Textbooks, by their very nature, cannot provide the same kind of up-to-date information as Web sites, she added.

When CNN decided to produce its own election curriculum, called “Your Choice, Your Voice,” putting it online allowed the cable network to include multimedia features such as video clips and links to other election Web sites.

“These kinds of materials are more accessible to teachers and students online,” said John Richard, the senior vice president and general manager of the network. And the medium has another advantage over print, he added: “We’re saving trees.”

With so many resources floating around in cyberspace, curriculum experts say it may be hard for teachers to separate the meat from the fat.

“There are a lot of Web-based materials, which means that anything can get on there,” Ms. Adler said. She added that if a credible organization has endorsed the materials, it has probably extensively reviewed the site.

Teachers also need to be on the lookout for any bias that may come across in the materials—and any of their own biases as well. “The materials have to be balanced,” said Charles N. Quigley, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education, a nonpartisan organization based in Calabasas, Calif.

Mr. Quigley recommended that teachers and curriculum designers look at “how accurately the alternative positions are being represented,” when choosing materials.

And while materials found online may engage students, Ms. Adler cautions that while they are being engaged, students need to be gathering information, analyzing it, and making decisions. Traditional, non-Web-based materials can be just as useful, she reminds teachers.

“I dont see it as one or the other,” she said.

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