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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)

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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