Twelve Interactive Activities for Learning About Elections

Paul Gigliotti for edutopia-October 17, 2012

The election year is a great time for social studies education; presidential and congressional campaigns are such a large part of the news and daily conversations that they have sparked the curiosity of even the youngest students. A student response system combined with an interactive whiteboard can bring lessons to life by giving students a hands-on "voter" experience.

Below are standards-based lessons for elementary and middle school classrooms. These lessons provide opportunities for cross-curricular integration with language arts through vocabulary development, and with math through graphing and numerical operations. They also include built-in assessment questions for measuring whether students are meeting the relevant standards. In addition to making your class hands-on and interactive, a response system will help you see the assessment results in real time, so you can quickly identify students who need a little more help during the lesson and adjust your teaching as needed.

Vocabulary Mastery

Mastering relevant vocabulary is crucial to understanding many social studies concepts. The election season is a fitting time to reinforce vocabulary terms, since students are hearing those terms on a regular basis.

Kindergarten to Grade Four

True/False: Assess vocabulary mastery by displaying statements containing election-related vocabulary on your interactive whiteboard. Ask students to use their response system handsets to vote on whether each statement is true or false.

Team Challenge: Divide the class into two teams for a vocabulary challenge. Present a term and multiple definitions (only one should be correct) on the whiteboard. Have each team take turns choosing the correct definition. A team leader should be assigned to record each team's choice via a handset. The team with the most correct answers wins.

Grades Five to Eight

Call My Bluff: Assess students' mastery of election-related vocabulary by calling on three volunteers to present definitions of a term. Secretly assign one of the volunteers the real definition and ask the other two to make up definitions. Ask the class to choose the correct definition. Note: Rather than setting up a digital question and answer assessment, I use the Quick Vote feature in the software our school uses to simply collect "votes" from handsets after orally posing the question.

College Bowl: Present a set of sentences using a vocabulary term; only one sentence uses the term correctly. Divide the class into two teams. Have each team take turns choosing the sentence that uses the term correctly. Assign "team leaders" to record their team's choice with the handset. Team members should discuss and agree on their response before the leader votes. The team with the most correct answers wins.

Alternatively, you could hold two different Quick Votes without creating teams. Have half the class answer the first Quick Vote and the other half of the class answer the second Quick Vote (use the same vocabulary term and sentences).

Understanding Polling

During the election season, many news reports focus on public opinion polls that try to predict how people will vote on Election Day. Students across all grades should understand that candidates use poll results to know which groups support them and which groups need to be persuaded.

Kindergarten to Grade Four

Individual Poll: Have students participate in a poll to choose one of the presidential candidates or select a "principal for a day." Most systems will keep the responses anonymous, so students should feel comfortable making their selections.

Group Poll: Divide the class into groups using a characteristic such as gender, and poll the groups on the candidates. Create new groups using another attribute such as desk locations, and poll them again. Create a table on the whiteboard to display the results and discuss any differences between the groups.

Grades Five to Eight

Individual Poll: Poll students their preference for president, congress, local authorities or even the "principal for the day." Be sure to include "Undecided" as a possible answer. Chart the results and discuss them with the class.

Focus on the Issues: Brainstorm the important issues of the election with the class, and create a list of these issues on the whiteboard. Choose the top four issues and create a quiz or poll, labeling the key issues "A" through "D." Divide the class into groups by whatever criteria you choose. Ask students in each group to select the issue they feel is most important via the handsets. Chart the results in a table.

Strategy Discussion: Have the class consider how strategists for the candidates might use the information obtained from the previous activity. Should the candidate spend more time trying to keep supporters' backing strong, or more time trying to convince the undecided? You may opt to divide the class into campaign-strategy committees for each candidate and have the committees determine their candidate's strategy.

Understanding How the Electoral College Works

One of the biggest challenges in following election-night coverage during a presidential election is understanding the role of the electoral college. The following activities help middle school students see the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote.

Popular Vote: Have the class use the response system to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. (If the class is close to unanimous in their choice, assign some students to vote for the opposing candidate.) Chart the results and explain that this is the popular vote of the class.

State Vote: Divide the class into five groups representing different states. Group 1 should have one student, Group 2 should have three students, Group 3 should be medium-sized and Groups 4 and 5 should be very large (the last three groups should have uneven numbers, if possible). Have each "state" vote for a candidate.

Classroom Electoral College: The two small groups have two representatives each in your classroom Electoral College, the two large groups have six representatives each, and the medium group has four representatives. Add up Electoral College votes, and use the interactive whiteboard's software to chart or graph the results. Create a chart or graph comparing popular votes with electoral votes and discuss the results.

The Takeaway

Teaching about the elections is a fresh way to cover state and local standards. Demonstrating social science concepts through these activities not only deepens students' understanding but also develops skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communicating, using graphs and charts, and supporting a position with data and other evidence.


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