Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Election Projects Get Students Critically Engaged

October 25, 2012
Image credit: PenPal News

With election season entering the final stretch, political discussions are at a fever pitch. Attack ads and debate "zingers" may be dominating the news, but they don't tell the whole story when it comes to how voters -- and future voters -- think and talk about important issues. In classrooms across the country, election-year projects are encouraging students to think more critically about topics ranging from immigration to the economy.

Red States, Blue States

Through an online exchange project called PenPal News Red-Blue, an estimated 6,000 middle-school and high school students from 25 states are discussing election-year issues with peers from different parts of the country.

"The concept of pen pals is age old," says PenPal News founder Michael Bernstein. The idea remains popular "because it affords open and honest communication between two people." His start-up organization, with support from Hive Learning Network NYC and Mozilla Foundation, has updated the pen pal concept. A web platform provides a free online matching service for teachers who want to connect their students one-to-one with peers in another location. PenPal News then tees up student exchanges with short animations and timely readings, reflecting Bernstein's professional background in journalism.

The animations "provide an immediate hook to the content," he says, and also add context with facts and figures about specific issues. The goal is to "pull students into the story," he says, and give them a reason to think critically about it. When students write to their pen pals about a topic, he explains, "they can engage with the issue and relate it to their own lives. It personalizes the learning." Assignments are aligned to Common Core State Standards.

During the Red-Blue project, for instance, introductory lessons have focused on the economy, role of government, immigration, and other current issues. One week, student pen pals responded to a radio documentary reported by a young woman in New York City whose parents immigrated to the U.S. illegally. Not surprisingly, students' reactions to the story were influenced by their life experiences. A teen whose family came to Washington State -- legally --from South Korea made a convincing argument to have more empathy for immigrants. She pointed out that many immigrants face great risks to offer their children a better future. Her comments caused her pen pal in rural North Carolina to reconsider, but not necessarily abandon, her anti-immigration stance.

"That kind of conversation is great for both students," Bernstein adds. "It's so important to be able to see another person's perspective." The broader goal of the project, he adds, is for students to "share opinions, question assumptions, and relate issues being discussed on the campaign trail to their own lives."

Strong response to the project tells Bernstein that "teachers are looking for connections," along with authentic opportunities to use social media for learning. PenPal News Red-Blue will continue after the election. Teacher participants are interested in having students continue talking -- in a reasoned, respectful manner -- about hot topics. "These issues won't go away in November," Bernstein adds. In future projects, he plans to extend the pen pal connections internationally.


#MyParty12 is another technology-fueled project that's making election season a time of critical thinking for students. As I mentioned in in an earlier post, the project started with two teachers from the New Tech Network who wanted to spark student interest in the political system by challenging students to create their own party platforms.

Teachers and students from across the New Tech Network have joined the project, which will culminate with national student elections. The project has given students new reason to pay attention to election coverage and voice their own informed opinions. They are interviewing local candidates and producing their own campaign ads. During the second presidential debate, New Tech students were active commenters on Twitter. Tweets with the hashtag #myparty12 numbered more than 1,400.

Their newfound interest in politics is bound to continue once these students reach voting age. What's more, it's a safe bet that students who took part in #MyParty12 will carefully consider the issues in future elections. Teacher Mike Kaechele described in a recent blog post how he used a site called ProCon to encourage students to think critically about their political opinions.

What does critical thinking mean in Kaechele's classroom? For starters, students have to find arguments and research to support both sides of their thesis statements. Imagine the change in tone if we could convince grown-up politicians to play by similar rules.

Are you among the many teachers using election season as a springboard for learning? How do you help your students think beyond the sound bites? Please share your experiences.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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