Using politics to teach critical thinking

Politics delivered via political ads are divisive, biased, and tough to parse. All the better to help teach tomorrow’s voters today’s 21st-century skills.

Our Do’s and Don’ts

Overall, students learned a great deal and had some of their ideas challenged, but in a healthy, supportive environment. It also gave us a chance to guide them on how to do a close read with texts other than a traditional printed article or textbook (in this case, political ads). We’ve always found it easiest to begin with a shorter text, and one that lets students analyze it with a different purpose during each read through. We created different questions to guide students’ thinking for each “watch through” of the political advertisement.

Students were given class time to compose their argumentative CERCA essays and we met with them throughout their work time and individually in a focused writing conference to give them timely feedback before they submitted their work. Too often, students turn in rough drafts that lack quality because teachers neither provide students feedback while writing nor schedule revision activities into their lesson or unit plan. Feedback and revision are such important parts of the writing process, but feedback and revision doesn’t always get the attention it deserves at the secondary level.

We also took care to guide students through the activity with very gradual release. This activity asked students to take a very subjective form of text and make sense of the biased content. Political ads are meant to be elusive and one-sided in nature; asking students to take the emotional appeal out of it was a challenge for some passionate supporters. Since students were using a lot of recently-acquired knowledge on the political process to inform their writing, we found that the activity works best as a summative assignment, after the unit has been completed in class.

Conducting the post-mortem

The day after the election we had a group discussion on how we should comport ourselves now that the election was over. We really pride ourselves on our sportsmanship at Lodi High School, so we brought that aspect into the conversation. Our main message was: no gloating if our candidate won and not to despair if our candidate lost. The discussion also recalled the previous lesson, and we spoke about the number of voters who only got their information from social media and political ads, and how this could be a problem for both parties moving forward.

Finally, we talked about the Electoral College and the implications surrounding popular vs. electoral votes. We studied this before the election, and found this was a great time to reinforce the concept. Many students who lean toward a Republican ideology argued against the Electoral College system before the election, and vice-versa, which led to a rich conversation in light of the results. Overall, we let the students know that it’s encouraged to think critically about the American election system. We reinforced that being disappointed or elated with the outcome and believing or having doubts about the system are not mutually exclusive concepts.

In mid-December, after the electoral college meets and votes, we will look at the process anew, examining any so-called “faithless electors” as well as those who refrained from voting and those who voted along with their state’s populous. We feel it’s important to spark these conversations with tomorrow’s voters now, while they’re still learning about the civic process and sharpening their critical thinking. These are the skills we hope students can lean on for the rest of their lives, into the voting booth and beyond.

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