Creating Political Activists: Want to Find the Best Ways to Energize Students about This Fall's Election? Put Down Those Textbooks and Have Teens Volunteer, Create Their Own Mock Campaigns and Dissect, the Media's Role in Today's Politics

Article excerpt

With negative campaigning and voter cynicism on the rise, presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry aren't the only ones facing a tough fight this fall. The same can be said for the thousands of civics, U.S. government and American history teachers trying to get the next generation of voters to care about the election and the political process it culminates.

That's an especially tall order, say election experts, in an era of dismal voter turnout by recent high school graduates and a popular culture that finds more wrong than right about elected leaders. But before teachers and curriculum developers draft their concession speeches, they might check into several programs offered by organizations specializing in hands-on and interactive approaches to elections.

From the long-running CNN Student News to the more recently developed Youth Leadership Initiative at the University of Virginia and the Media and American Democracy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, teachers across grade levels and disciplines are finding answers to the problem of engaging and activating the student body.

"There's this perception that young people are apathetic," says Lea Brown, YLI's director of instruction. "That perception is unfortunate because they really aren't. If you ask a young person about issues--from capital punishment to the environment to the war in Iraq--kids have very passionate ideas. I think they have a harder time connecting that to the political process."

Diving Into Politics

The Youth Leadership program, which was founded in 1998 at Virginia's Center for Politics and now counts 6,000 mostly high school and middle school teachers, makes those connections through a series of free computerized simulations that bring students closer to political realities. The centerpiece of the institute's presidential election coverage is a mock ballot that distinguishes itself from other online votes by offering a teacher-designed curriculum meeting state standards. Teachers can download lesson plans, the latest political analysis and recent charts and graphs about demographics and voting trends.

"School systems buy a textbook, and that's what they have for years," Brown notes. "This is a way for them to supplement a lot of what's out there at no cost to them."

Schools can also get a free, live-action CD-ROM called "A More Perfect Union," that lets users--individually and in groups-take on the role of a campaign manager in an imaginary U.S Senate campaign.

"If students are planning the schedule for their candidate," says Brown, "they have to look at the demographic information for that candidate. If they want to visit district 2, and 2 skews older, they might want to talk about Social Security. If the district has a high or low unemployment, they can see that."

There are news broadcasts built into the CD-ROM to which the young campaign managers must respond. They also have to schedule fundraisers and photo ops, order polls and analyze the results.

The institute program has drawn an enthusiastic following of teachers who have added their own innovations. Julie Strong, who teaches AP U.S. government and also American history at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va., has been an active YLI member tot four years. She'll hit the ground running this term by having her AP students discuss their summer reading of Hardball, by TV political commentator Chris Matthews, with an eye to evaluating how well candidates Bush, Kerry and Ralph Nader are playing the political game.

A six-week election refit follows as Strong divides her students into teams representing the opposing candidates in the presidential race, as well as in Virginia's U.S. Senate and House contests. While those students will vote in the institute's mock election, they'll take on additional campaign roles, from fundraising to managing public relations to dealing with special interest groups. …