Social Studies: Teaching about Elections

How to teach politics without getting too political

The tricky thing about teaching politics to any grade level of students is leaving your own politics out of it. I always knew I had taught a successful unit if by the end, students still did not know which way I leaned politically. I have had colleagues who make it very clear which way they lean, even going so far as to have bumper stickers or signage touting specific candidates hanging in their classroom. This always bothered me because although I think teachers are responsible for influencing our students to be learners, there are certain topics we have no business influencing. I subscribe to the Linus theory:

“I’ve learned there are three things you don’t discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

Linus Van Pelt (Charles Schultz)

This does not mean ignoring the issues altogether though. It is important for students be aware there are religions that are different than the one they practice just as there are different stances on politics. You also want to mine student interest whenever it rears its head so whenever the presidential election rolls around, I would always have my students participate in an election of their own.

I would show them the political spectrum:

I would explain each of these parts of the spectrum:

  • Radical: Advocating extreme policies, usually used in connection with extreme left-wing politics.
  • Liberal: A belief that regards the individual as a rational being capable of overcoming obstacles to a better world and supports changes in the political and economic status quo.
  • Moderate: Middle of the road politics that believe that some things should change while others can remain with the status quo.
  • Conservative: A defense of the political and economic status quo against forces of change; holds that established customs, laws, and traditions should guide society.
  • Reactionary: Advocating extremely conservative politics.

And explain that depending on how far right or left on the spectrum, the more radical your politics. This would often times spark a discussion about how any main stream politicians tend to be in the moderate range because it appeals to a larger number of voters.

After students have a pretty good grasp of the political spectrum, rather than talking about the current election and its politics, a place where it is very easy to get caught in the weeds, I have students form groups and create their own political party. This allows them to bring their opinions, beliefs, and background to the conversation rather than the teacher providing the dialogue for them.

Each person in the group took on a specific role. The choices were:

  • President: Is responsible for a speech that lays out the party’s platform as well as how they stand on three specific issues.
  • Vice-President: Is responsible for a speech that matches the President’s platform as well as how they stand on three different specific issues.
  • Campaign manager: Is in charge of managing the entire campaign from the speeches to the advertisements to the candidates.
  • Speech writer: Is responsible for helping the President and Vice-President to craft their speeches, needs to cross check the speeches to make sure they do not contradict one another.
  • Press secretary: Responsible for the marketing of the candidates from their advertisements to their slogan.

This way students can choose roles where they have strengths. In other words, someone who is comfortable speaking in public might take on one of the candidate roles, while a student talented in art could focus on designing the campaign poster. A student who has good ideas but is shy may help write the speeches while an organized child would be great for the role of the campaign manager and keeping everyone on task.

The group then decides where their party stands on specific political topics. I provided them with a list of them:

As the teacher, it is up to you whether you want to include such hot topic issues such as abortion, gay rights, or the death penalty. It would depend on the age of your students as well as the temperament of your administration and parents.

To increase the authentic nature of this project, I always made the venue for the candidate speeches as real to life as possible. I called city hall to see if we could use their facilities. I invited prominent community members to serve on the panel that would evaluate the speeches including the school superintendent, business leaders, and the mayor. I even invited the press to come and cover the event, so students were seeing how this worked in the real world rather than in the test tube of a classroom.

I usually only did this project during the presidential election year because that was when interest was highest with all of the news exposure and advertisements, but it could be done any election year. I did this with students as low as 5th grade all the way to seniors in high school. This project could be adapted to local or state issues as well. The important thing is that while students are learning about politics, they are able to include their own voice and opinions. If you would like a lesson plan for this project you can download one for free at

Todd Stanley is the author of many teacher-education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students, Authentic Learning, and his latest Case Studies and Case-Based Learning. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years and is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools. You can follow him on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at where you can access blogs, resources, and view PD presentations.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: