The United States presidential election gives educators a unique, real-world teaching opportunity to help students understand the U.S. election process, what it takes to become president and to get excited about civic education.
In the early grades, class discussions and activities may center on the president’s job and the qualities a person needs to be a strong leader or elected public official. Young students are particularly engaged by educational experiences that center on voting and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship—for them, learning about the election can be an opportunity to simply explore the meaning of civic engagement in the U.S. and spark their interest in learning more. Such explorations grow increasingly complex in the upper grades as students are able to think more critically about the election process, campaign issues and how candidates work to get their message across to the American public.
As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in the final sprint toward Election Day, TIME FOR KIDS has put together this list of 10 discussion starters and activities to support your teaching. Tips are sorted by grade level, and they can also easily be adapted across grade levels. For more about the candidates and the election, visit timeforkids.com/election16.
Grades K-2: Sparking early interest through exploratory activities
1. Make a K-W-L chart to find out what your students already know about the presidency and what they want to learn. (The final column, which reflects what students have learned, can be filled in over time.) Get the discussion started by asking: Where does the president live? What is the president’s job? For how many years can a president serve? Pair the discussion with a reading of Don’t Know Much About the Presidents, by Kenneth C. Davis.
2. Have students brainstorm a list of character traits that they think a person needs in order to be a good leader. Start by talking about why these traits are needed, then broaden the dialogue by asking students to take a second look at the traits and to determine which ones a president needs. Finally, have students discuss which traits they have that would make each of them a good leader.
3. Ask: What does it mean to vote? Encourage students to share personal experiences with voting, such as voting for a favorite book, or on a game to play at recess. Then ask: Why is it important for adults to vote for president? List answers on chart paper. Then separate the class into groups of four and tell students that it is their job to persuade adults to vote on Election Day, which is Tuesday, November 8, 2016. They can create posters or ads about the importance of voting. Allow time for groups of students to share their work.
4. Ask students to bring in news photos (and the accompanying captions and articles) of the presidential candidates. Display the photos on a bulletin board or poster board and take time to talk about each of them. Ask: Where is the candidate in this photo? What is the candidate doing? What else is happening in the photo? Is the candidate interacting with voters? If so, how?
5. Discuss with students their advice for the next president of the United States. Ask: What can the president to do make our country better? What can he or she do to improve the lives of all Americans? When the election has been decided, have students write letters to the new president expressing their views.
Grades 3-6: Challenging students to think critically
1. In the U.S. a person must be at least 18 years old to vote. Ask: Why is 18 the voting age? Should younger people be eligible to vote? Why?
2. Should voting be mandatory? Tell student that voting is mandatory in Australia, where 95 percent of registered voters go the polls. People who do not show up to vote can be fined or jailed. Ask: Should the U.S. require all eligible citizens to vote? What might be the advantages and disadvantages of such a law? Record students’ ideas on a T-chart. Then have them write an opinion article stating their view. Send them to timeforkids.com/homework-helper and click on A+ Papers, followed by Persuasive Essay, for a handy writing guide.
3. Let students know that a majority of the popular vote is not what a candidate needs in order to win the presidential election. Explain that, in the U.S., a candidate wins by capturing at least 270 out of 538 Electoral College votes. For a kid-friendly explanation of the Electoral College, visitcongressforkids.net, then click Elections, followed by Electoral College. Students can then voice their opinions about the poll at timeforkids.com/ec. Then have students use an uncolored U.S. map to follow election results, coloring the states that Trump wins red and the states that Clinton wins blue.
4. Have students brainstorm a list of ways in which presidential candidates and party representatives get their message across to the American people (candidates and party representatives give speeches; have websites; give interviews; take part in debates; appear in ads), and record the list of ideas on chart paper. Ask: What do you think is the most effective way for a candidate and a party to connect with voters? Why?
5. Separate students into groups of four. Assign each group one campaign issue (the economy, education, health care, the environment, national security, immigration). Tell them that their job is to research each issue in order to learn about each candidates’ viewpoint. Discuss resources where students might find information, such as newspaper articles, news websites, and the candidates’ websites. TIME FOR KIDS’ Election 2016 minisite (timeforkids.com/minisite/election-2016) outlines where the two main candidates stand on education, the economy, taxes, health care, and defense.
Adapted from Election 2016: Teaching Tips and Worksheets to Guide Students Through the U.S. Presidential Election.