Candidates in the classroom:

Professor Elizabeth Washington

Professor Elizabeth Washington

Helping students learn from Election 2008

For millions of Americans, “high school” and “democracy” go together like “banana” and “republic.”


August 11, 2008



Professor Elizabeth Washington

Professor Elizabeth Washington

Helping students learn from Election 2008

For millions of Americans, “high school” and “democracy” go together like “banana” and “republic.”

After all, that vote you cast for Mondale in the mock presidential election made you the outcast of your eighth grade class. When your class chose Jeff Spicoli as prom queen, the teachers threw the results out. And then there was that student body president race—two months of drama to decide whether there should be Funyuns in the vending machine.

With this kind of introduction to democracy, perhaps it’s no surprise that nearly half of Americans choose to sit out the average presidential election—or that those who participate often don’t expect much from the system. As we approach one of the most crucial elections in the nation’s history, what can social studies teachers do to overcome the “prom queen” effect and get students genuinely interested in voting?

“As K-12 teachers, we have an audience that is, mostly, genuinely disenfranchised,” said Bob Dahlgren, a UF education doctoral student in social studies education. “Only a portion of the seniors are old enough to vote in the election, they don’t feel as if they have a stake.

“We need new ways to show students they can be involved in political issues that really matter,” he said.

Dahlgren was one of six doctoral students in UF’s social studies education program who traveled to the National Council for the Social Studies conference recently to present their methods for teaching the electoral process to 21st Century students. The presentations grew out of COE Professor Elizabeth Washington’s doctoral seminar “Critical Issues in the Education of Democratic Citizens.”

Their presentations grew out of classroom conversation in which the students talked about the dangers of political apathy, and excitement of the coming election year.

“The class led to some deep discussion of the idea of ‘spectator politics’, the idea that people are largely watching the process from the sidelines,” Washington said. “We also talked a lot about the excitement that young people seem to feel in this election year, and we realized that now is the perfect time to encourage high school students to get involved.”

With the 2008 presidential election percolating through the news daily, we thought it might be a good idea to share some of those tips with our readers.


Once upon a time, American voters would read every word of the newspaper and travel miles on horseback to hear a two-hour political speech. And while history teachers may swoon at that kind of political ardor, they shouldn’t write off their 21st-century students as less literate—or less political—than their ancestors.

“Text is no longer just print,” says Cheryl Kmiec, a recent UF Ph.D. graduate who now teaches at the University of South Florida. “It comes in many forms now. If you’re still teaching only the words from a textbook, you’re not preparing you students for the media they encounter every day.”

Kmiec and recent UF graduate Michelle Phillips have built a curriculum around the use of the texts most familiar to students: television advertisements. Through a website set up by the American Museum of the Moving Image (at teachers can show their students the post-primary ads of every major presidential candidate since Eisenhower.

While students may not be thrilled by “I Like Ike,” Kmiec and Phillips say many old ads show an image-savvy sensibility modern teens can appreciate, and themes today’s students can relate to. Take, for instance, Lyndon Johnson’s iconic 1964 campaign commercial that begins with a girl counting petals on a daisy—then segues to the countdown to a nuclear missile launch.

“Fear is a major theme that recurs in these ads,” says Kmiec. “From the ‘Daisy Girl’ ad to the terrorism-related themes that emerged in the 2004 campaign, students always seem to notice the ads that scare them.”

And teachers should let students do the noticing, say both former education students. Rather than lecturing on the background of each ad and asking students to discuss the issues, it’s better to try collaborative techniques like the jigsaw activity—in which students meet in “expert groups” to specialize one piece of a topic, and then share their knowledge with “experts” from other groups. These techniques can direct students to the bigger picture—asking them to identify running themes and common mechanisms used in each ad.

“If they can learn to identify the techniques used in the ads, students can get past the images to the real issues,” Phillips said.

Phillips used these techniques with her own 7th grade classes during the 2004 election, and she found that her students were capable of an impressive amount of media savvy. Asked to identify major themes in presidential ads, they identified concepts such as fear and the strong leader—much the same concepts that adult media experts have discovered.

They also had a strong understanding of the economic underpinnings of the campaign. When Phillips asked her students why older campaign ads were so slow-paced, the students didn’t go for an off-the-shelf answer about diminishing attention spans.

“They said, ‘of course the ads were long, because advertising was cheaper back then,” Phillips said.


In her Clay County classroom, COE alumna and doctoral student Emma Humphries went a step beyond analyzing political ads. In 2007—when each party still had enough candidates to field a baseball team—she asked her advanced placement government students to pick a candidate and work in groups to craft a political ad promoting that candidate.

By asking students to storyboard each commercial before filming it, she got her students thinking about the carefully crafted images that go into the ads they see on TV. By asking them to sell a candidate’s positions, she got them to research the issues.

Humphries’ assignment produced impressive—and prescient—results.

“Hillary Clinton is not a popular person in Clay County, but one group of students decided they wanted to do an ad for her,” she said. “Despite their reservations, they looked at Clinton’s target demographic—women—and came up with an ad that revolved around health care.”

Another group picked Mike Huckabee, identified name recognition as his greatest obstacle, and created an ad linking him to actor Chuck Norris—weeks before Huckabee wowed voters with a similar appeal. The Guiliani group built a commercial that leaned heavily on the former New York mayor’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, presaging Guiliani’s own campaign, which critics derided as a run for “president of 9/11.”

“They were pretty dead-on,” Humphries said. “Kids this age are very media-savvy, and an assignment like this gives them a chance to use what they know.”

Because of that media savvy, Humphries said, teachers should make sure they ask students to storyboard their ads and justify their choices.

“Our students have grown up with a flood of media images around them, and manipulating images is almost like second nature to them,” she said. “We want to get them to slow down and think about the images they’re seeing.”


Of course, there is still a use for the old, ink-and-paper kind of literacy—particularly when you live in a state like Florida, where government by constitutional amendment seems to be growing in popularity.

In recent years, Florida voters have been asked to weigh in directly on everything from classroom size to high-speed rail to the treatment of pregnant pigs. Almost every election cycle produces a new crop of densely worded constitutional amendments in the Sunshine State.

For some people, decoding these amendments is a hassle. But doctoral student Bob Dahlgren sees these ballot measures as a perfect chance to teach students how to unpack a paragraph.

“These initiatives cover local issues that affect students directly—and if the students are close to age 18, they may get to have a say,” Dahlgren said. “That creates a pretty strong incentive to wade through some pretty difficult text.”

Dahlgren advises teachers to get a running start before leaping into a lesson on an upcoming ballot initiative. First, teachers should prime the pump by downloading ballot measures from other states, breaking students into groups, and asking each group to interpret a different ballot measure.

With practice, Dahlgren says, students can get pretty good at spotting the trick-wording in the amendments. Then they can take on local ballot issues with confidence—and debate the proposals with their peers before they vote.

COE doctoral student Steve Masyada, who teaches at Williston High School in Levy County, cautions that younger students may have trouble connecting to ballot initiatives in the classroom.

“Even grownups have trouble grasping the purpose of these initiatives,” Masyada said. “I mean, does anybody know what that fetal pig amendment was all about? But clearly, as you get closer to casting your first vote, you get a lot more interested in what these amendments say.”


Any time students debate, there’s a danger that the classroom discussion will turn into a mirror image of the dysfunctional behavior that happens on the bus or in the lunchroom. Students may separate into cliques, agree with their close friends, and fling a quick putdown toward anyone who disagrees with them.

That’s exactly what students often see on television shows where political matters are discussed, says COE student Sheryl Howie, but it’s not how a real democratic dialogue is conducted.

Howie urges her students to abandon the “gladiator politics” of the TV talk shows by instructing her students in the difference between dialogue and “anti-dialogue.” Dialogue, Howie says, occurs when students temporarily suspend their own beliefs, actively listen to others, and look for common ground. “Anti-dialogue” occurs when students look for glaring differences between the two sides, and attack or malign their opponents.

To make sure students understand the concept, she gives them an example—playing a videotape of the famously combative interview between celebrity Tom Cruise and NBC news presenter Matt Lauer. In the interview, Cruise tells Lauer “you’re glib” and tells him “you don’t know (about the topic) and I do.”

“Students understand fairly quickly that this is not what we’re going to do,” Howie said. “And I think many of them are relieved.”

By banishing gladiator politics from her classroom, Howie has been able to engage students in debates about topics many teachers would find too hot to touch—topics such as race, the war in Iraq and homosexuality.


In the old days, high school civics teachers usually kept mum about their own voting choices. After all, it’s important to maintain an impartial classroom. But in the 21st Century, many teachers—including many working UF graduate students—feel that it can be okay to show students your cards.

“If they ask, I do tell them who I support,” said Humphries. “You don’t want to push your own opinions in the classroom, but I think students will respect you if you come clean with them.”

While it should be done with caution, Humphries and others warn, coming out for a candidate can help students better judge your efforts to be impartial—and let them sound off when they feel you’re not being fair.

If you do come out for a candidate, it should be in an environment where your voice is one among many.

“I try as hard as possible to let the students set the tone,” said Masyada. “For a debate to really get rolling, the students have to find the points where they disagree—and once they’re going, they’re going to be too busy to ask the teacher’s opinions.

“And they’re teenagers, after all,” Masyada continued. “So they may not care what you think.”

— Tim Lockette