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.

As high school social studies teachers in a swing state, election season is some of the most fertile ground for learning, and this past cycle—with all its splashy and expensive political ads—proved no exception.

Our students are all in their mid teens, which means in the next presidential election, they will be eligible voters. With so much information (and misinformation) swirling around our students, it was imperative for us to teach them how to think critically about the political process in an unbiased, nonpartisan way, giving them the power to sift through the reams of information we’re inundated with on a daily basis and decide what to trust and what to be skeptical about—and how to go about making those determinations.

Tools to Teach with Politics

In our usual social studies classes, we use a literacy platform called ThinkCERCA to build lessons on current events and other interesting topics to spur critical thinking and argumentative writing through carefully-selected passages, media, and a series of guided writing prompts. For the election, ThinkCERCA created a central hub with timely and specially-created resources and writing prompts. There was a wealth of information to choose from, and students studied multiple aspects of the election in depth. For our final project, we knew we wanted to specifically hone in on having the students perform close reads of political advertisements.

This summative activity combined multiple topics our students learned about (election speak, political ideologies, political platforms, different political races, political information sources, and the U.S. election process in general) and asked students to assess their understanding of the political spectrum and where the different parties fell while investigating limitations of a common source for political information.

A Politics-Based Assignment

We wanted students to think about a series of essential questions: Where am I getting my information about candidates that run for office? How does this affect my knowledge base? And how do I determine what are conservative and liberal ideologies of candidates/major political parties?

For the assignment, which featured both group discussion and individual writing, students watched political ads released by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The class watched each ad multiple times, with equal exposure, and had a discussion on a handful of close reading topics: what the ad said, what the ad might have left unsaid, and how the ad was constructed in terms of tone and direction.

Afterward, students used the ads and what they learned during class to provide evidence to support their claims and write an argumentative essay in the ThinkCERCA platform using the CERCA Framework as their guide. The CERCA Framework, a cornerstone of the tool, emphasizes Claims, Evidence, Reasoning, Counterarguments, and Audience-appropriate language to create strong and well-reasoned arguments.

Students used the ads and other resources we gathered during class to argue whether the ads were a correct representation of where the two major parties are historically situated on the political spectrum. Students then had individual writing conferences focused on the evidence used to support their claim, and revised their CERCA essays before turning it in for a final grade.

(Next page: Do’s and Don’ts when teaching with politics)

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