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Creating Political Activists

Want to find the best ways to energize students about this fall's election? Put down those textbooks

With negative campaigning and voter cynicism on the rise, presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry aren't the only ones facing a tough fight this fall. The same can be said for the thousands of civics, U.S. government and American history teachers trying to get the next generation of voters to care about the election and the political process it culminates.

That's an especially tall order, say election experts, in an era of dismal voter turnout by recent high school graduates and a popular culture that finds more wrong than right about elected leaders. But before teachers and curriculum developers draft their concession speeches, they might check into several programs offered by organizations specializing in hands-on and interactive approaches to elections.

From the long-running CNN Student News to the more recently developed Youth Leadership Initiative at the University of Virginia and the Media and American Democracy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, teachers across grade levels and disciplines are finding answers to the problem of engaging and activating the student body.

"There's this perception that young people are apathetic," says Lea Brown, YLI's director of instruction. "That perception is unfortunate because they really aren't. If you ask a young person about issues--from capital punishment to the environment to the war in Iraq--kids have very passionate ideas. I think they have a harder time connecting that to the political process."

Diving Into Politics

The Youth Leadership program, which was founded in 1998 at Virginia's Center for Politics and now counts 6,000 mostly high school and middle school teachers, makes those connections through a series of free computerized simulations that bring students closer to political realities. The centerpiece of the institute's presidential election coverage is a mock ballot that distinguishes itself from other online votes by offering a teacher-designed curriculum meeting state standards. Teachers can download lesson plans, the latest political analysis and recent charts and graphs about demographics and voting trends.

"School systems buy a textbook, and that's what they have for years," Brown notes. "This is a way for them to supplement a lot of what's out there at no cost to them."

Schools can also get a free, live-action CD-ROM called "A More Perfect Union," that lets users--individually and in groups--take on the role of a campaign manager in an imaginary U.S Senate campaign.

"If students are planning the schedule for their candidate," says Brown, "they have to look at the demographic information for that candidate. If they want to visit district 2, and 2 skews older, they might want to talk about Social Security.

If the district has a high or low unemployment, they can see that."

There are news broadcasts built into the CD-ROM to which the young campaign managers must respond. They also have to schedule fundraisers and photo ops, order polls and analyze the results.

The institute program has drawn an enthusiastic following of teachers who have added their own innovations. Julie Strong, who teaches AP U.S. government and also American history at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va., has been an active YLI member for four years. She'll hit the ground running this term by having her AP students discuss their summer reading of Hardball, by TV political commentator Chris Matthews, with an eye to evaluating how well candidates Bush, Kerry and Ralph Nader are playing the political game.

A six-week election unit follows as Strong divides her students into teams representing the opposing candidates in the presidential race, as well as in Virginia's U.S. Senate and House contests. While those students will vote in the institute's mock election, they'll take on additional campaign roles, from fundraising to managing public relations to dealing with special interest groups.

The teams also create a stump speech and produce a television or radio advertisement or a Web site. Along the way, Strong adds, she sees her students developing a political interest and passion they have not shown before.

"I tell them over and over again that by the end of the year, they can't be apathetic," she says. "The students in 2000 were mesmerized. I ended up having kids becoming activists--on the left and on the right."

U.S. government teacher Debbie Lou Hague of First Colonial H.S. in Virginia Beach, another YLI subscriber, points to the increasing role of computers in teaching her subject. She has her students take an automated quiz on the institute site that lets them see where they stand on the political spectrum.

"Later in the year, we revisit the quiz and they find that they have moved along that spectrum," Hague says.

She adds her own twist to the curriculum by having her students search Web sites listing election donors in the state to better understand what groups have been giving money to national and local candidates and why.

"Whenever you can do anything away from the book, it's better," says Hague, who also requires four hours of service in the field from her students in election-related activities, such as volunteering at the polls.

Understanding the Media Spin

Television news network CNN, meanwhile, is offering its own free brand of election curriculum. It's built around CNN Student News, a daily 10-minute news broadcast and companion Web site that will cover a variety of news topics but places the election at center stage in September and October.

"One thing our program and curriculum do especially well is explaining the nuts and bolts of the process," says Donna Krache, the show's director of curriculum development.

That includes introductions to primaries and caucuses, as well as an online lexicon that defines words such as "spin" and "bounce." Lesson plans--linked to national standards--focus on such factors as voter turnout, expatriates who vote, and the balance of power in the House and Senate, as well as researching the positions of the presidential candidates.

Teachers can also order a free election kit, including a board game with the object of getting to the White House. Players move forward by correctly responding to questions about the political process. They research their answers by viewing CNN video clips and visiting related Web sites.

"The value is that you're tying your curriculum to the real world," Krache says. "These activities go beyond the textbook. They can make the process come alive."

She adds that any news broadcast--not just CNN's--is full of teachable moments. "Always encourage kids to question, 'Who wrote this piece? Were both sides presented? What sources were cited?' " Krache suggests. "One of the most valuable things we can pass along is critical thinking."

The Media and American Democracy Summer Institute--offered by Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy--takes critical thinking about election coverage to another level and to a variety of disciplines.

"It's increasingly hard to understand the presidency without seeing it in relationship to the media," says Tom Patterson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Every June, almost 1,000 high school history, social studies, journalism and English teachers, as well as librarians and curriculum specialists, converge in Cambridge, Mass., for a five-day seminar on topics such as "Who Owns the Media" and "Perspectives on the Media from Elected Officials."

They create extended lesson plans and, in growing numbers, are returning to their districts to serve as resources for other teachers. Past lesson topics, which are publicly available at the institute's site, range from "Are the Media Telling the Truth?" to "Money Talks."

"There's a lot at stake here," explains Patterson. "When you think about how ordinary citizens hook into the world of public affairs, they hook into it through the media. And when you bring a current event into the classroom through the lens of the media, students are not getting the full event. They're getting the mediated version of it. There are certain values and norms that operate in the news system and those are going to affect how events get portrayed."

Getting Out the Vote

Other election-oriented initiatives such as the non-profit, non-partisan Freedom's Answer are trying to nurture future voters by getting students involved in the actual election. Participating students obtain 10 voting pledges from family members and neighbors via dinnertime conversations, phone calls, and knocks at the door. Then they follow up with reminders on election eve.

"We're trying to reach young people in high school and give them an exercise in leadership so that they become part of the political process, even if they're too young to vote," says Freedom's Answer CEO Doug Bailey. They can become players on the political scene by becoming a voter turnout mechanism."

According to Bailey, this approach is taking hold. With the support of national student organizations and professional groups such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals, America's Answer claims 2,500 member schools and almost 1 million student participants in the 2002 elections.

The hands-on program is supplemented by a handbook for school coordinators and a curriculum gathered from KidsVoting USA, Newspapers in Education and the Center for Civic Education.

Teachers can stoke the fires kindled in students beyond November. Plenty of local elections occur at other times of the year. In the spring, the Youth Leadership Institute offers a popular e-Congress simulation where students research and create legislation on issues important to them and then send the bills to other classrooms around the country for review. Those classrooms act as committees, which then debate and pass along amended bills to a "House floor," a virtual community of 500 students in classrooms around the country, who debate the bills sent to them for a vote.

One satisfied customer is Scott Zenkert, who teaches required Participation in Government to seniors and American History to juniors at Churchville Chili Central School outside of Rochester, N.Y.

"It's not just working on old history or talking about a theory," says Zenkert. "The students see how difficult it is to get anything done between the research on public policy, drafting the legislation, and submitting it to a committee. Even though everyone agrees on the importance of an issue, they don't reach consensus. And what seems like an interesting piece of legislation doesn't get anywhere because it runs out of time."

"Every teacher in a government classroom is required by his or her state to teach how a bill becomes a law. So you can do that with a Magruder's textbook and a flow chart, but that's not engaging," adds Youth Leadership Institute's Curriculum Director Lea Brown. "Pretty much every teacher out there knows that when kids do things, when they create something of their own, when they share their knowledge with other young people, those are the things that really make the learning stick."

Web Resources

Harvard University's Kennedy School


The University of Virginia's Youth Leadership Initiative

CNN News

Freedom's Answer

Ron Schachter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.