Thanks to the creativity of some ed-tech vendors, the development of Web 2.0 technologies, and the dedication of educators from coast to coast, students are experiencing the 2008 presidential election as never before, using interactive tools and strategies that teach important 21st-century skills, promote civic engagement, and engage students in the democratic process.
From interactive online activities to webcasts and mock elections, technology is helping students learn how the election directly affects their lives and that every vote does, indeed, count.
"Over the past four years, an increase in new media and the political candidates’ presence on the web have really changed the way people get their political information," writes Kristen Hokanson, technology integration coach at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pa., and southeast regional director of the Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communication and Technology, in a blog post for PBS Teachers, titled "Promoting Civic Engagement in the MySpace Age."
"Use of social media for teaching is a powerful way to engage students in the learning process," Hokanson writes.
She notes that during the 2004 election, 75 million Americans used the internet to participate directly in the political process–and the 2008 election is sure to surpass those numbers.
"In 2004, MySpace was one year old, Facebook had just launched, and YouTube didn’t exist," she writes. "For the 2008 election, all of the candidates have accounts on these and many other social networking sites. YouTube You Choose is a common source of political videos, and MySpace Decision 08 is reaching out to younger voters."
She adds that in a world "where information and digital media are so readily available, it is critical that teachers begin to use different types of information to grab students’ attention. Teachers also need to ask students to critically analyze the information that is given by participating in a way that meets individual students’ learning styles."
PBS Teachers offers a plan for how to leverage the web and digital media in teaching about the election. "Access, Analyze, Act: A Blueprint for 21st Century Civic Engagement" (also known as the "AAA" curriculum), helps educators use social media for teaching information and media literacy, critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and technology skills–while "developing students’ understanding of the political, social, and economic issues facing our nation at election time," says PBS.
This standards-based curriculum, designed in partnership with Temple University’s Media Education Lab, is aimed at middle and high school teachers and students. It includes readings, lesson plans, an interactive "Political Personality" quiz for students, and professional development videos for teachers.
Hokanson says it’s critical for young people to develop skills that help them analyze and critique the many media messages surrounding the campaigns–"skills that will serve them far beyond the election," she adds.
In the "Analyze" section of the blueprint, students focus on the role that media have played in other historical campaigns. Students also focus on genres and techniques and then apply them to their own media messages.
In the "Act" section, students ask questions, compose speeches, and express opinions using tools such as NPR’s "Get My Vote," and they connect election issues from today with those of the past using "American Experience: The Presidents."
"The majority of the tools, lessons, and quizzes … include widget code so that the tool can be embedded on a student’s personal blog or a class web page, providing them the opportunity for a professional use of social tools. As a result, students begin to see themselves as being part of a larger conversation," says Hokanson.
Michael Hutchinson, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Ind., and president of Indiana Computer Educators, used the AAA curriculum to help get funding for more school computers.
With an enrollment of about 750 students, his school had few computer labs, and students had to compete for computer time. Hutchinson says that because he used computers extensively in his curriculum, he thought it was necessary to get more.
Early in the year he made an appointment with his principal, Greg Parsley, to discuss the extra computers and also gave him a copy of the AAA curriculum.
"He was highly receptive of what I wanted to do, and he agreed that I should have some extra technology for my classroom. Within a few days I received three extra computers–in addition to my teacher workstation–and the kids rarely needed to hunt for a free computer."
Hutchinson explained how he uses the information from each of the lessons and develops his own assignment web page, which he "hangs" from a special election page he created for his students.
"I announce that the next assignment is now available and give the kids the related resources. The last assignment we’ve done is the one titled ‘Changing Media, Changing Campaigns.’ The kids can simply click the links on the page, and they go to the related PBS resources. I’ve also included several of the widgets and other resources on my web page," he says.
He also believes using Web 2.0 technologies in social studies classes is the next logical step in online curriculum development, because "Web 2.0 allows classes to have more interaction above and beyond eMail. As with many other things in the world of technology, we’re just starting out, and we are learning more strategies to use Web 2.0 effectively."
Another organization offering online election materials is the Bill of Rights Institute, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen civic knowledge. The institute offers several interactive activities for students free of charge, such as "Madison’s Notes Are Missing" and "The Powers of the President."
"Madison’s Notes Are Missing" is a Flash activity that has students take a virtual trip back in time to report on key issues during the Constitutional Convention. Students watch and hear from convention delegates in a non-linear way and on the issues they are most interested in. Then, they synthesize what they’ve learned into a newspaper article on the topic.
Students participating in "Madison’s Notes Are Missing"
"Visual learners will remember the animated George Mason explaining why he’d rather cut off his hand than put it in the Constitution, while auditory learners will remember his southern drawl speaking the words," said Veronica Burchard of the Bill of Rights Institute.
Samantha Bentley, a social studies teacher from Temple, Okla., said she shared links for the "Madison’s Notes Are Missing" activity with her whole school, finding it was something "comprehensive and interesting for students in grades five and up, and the teachers could use it with no preparation."
"The Powers of the President" activity fosters critical thinking about the power delegated to the president in the Constitution. Students watch videos and hear statements made by presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama on a number of issues, then investigate how and whether the Constitution gives the president the power to act on those issues.
Beverly Hart, an American studies teacher at Flanagan High School in Flanagan, Ill., said her class presented an all-school assembly for Constitution Day during which they featured "The Powers of the President" activities.
"We are convinced by the research that reveals learning as an active process," said Burchard. "These activities foster 21st-century skills. We’ve also heard from teachers that materials that feature the Constitution are scarce when it comes to elections."
Inspiration Software, a visual thinking and learning software vendor, recently gave educators the chance to learn how to turn the 2008 presidential election into a teachable moment by participating in a free webcast called "Analyzing Close Presidential Races with InspireData: How Might a Different Winner Have Changed History?"
Hosted by Rick Reynolds, education development manager for social studies at Inspiration Software, the webcast showed teachers how they can have their students use the company’s InspireData to analyze vote totals by state for past elections–and consider how history might have been different if the candidate who was narrowly defeated had won.
Using InspireData, students can see how past elections played out
According to Reynolds, "Presidential Elections" is one of InspireData’s more than 100 built-in databases. It contains election data from 1876-2004. Students can import data from additional years as well.
"We provide investigative questions that help students think critically about the elections, formulate hypotheses to investigate further, and explore how history might have been different if the second-place finisher had won," said Reynolds. "Questions like these make students more aware of the importance of engaging in the political process."
The webcast was recorded and can be downloaded free of charge from Inspiration Software’s web site.
Inspiration also recently hosted a Nationwide Mock Presidential Election. Students and teachers visited a simple survey site, where they used InspireData’s e-survey tool to cast their votes for their favorite candidates on issues such as the economy, education, the environment, health care, and the war in Iraq, as well as choose their top candidate for 44th president of the United States.
"This [mock] election is designed to tap into the excitement around this year’s election and have students make informed decisions and actively participate in the process of voting," explained Reynolds. "Students are encouraged to think critically about the candidates."
"I really liked the assignment, because it helps us get interested in politics at an early age," said a student in Tamara Weinstein’s fifth-grade class at the Children’s School in Atlanta, Ga., which did a mock presidential election project with InspireData. "Also, it helped open our eyes to the outside world. It was a good way to talk about politics without starting an argument!"
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