THIS PAST JUNE, a young boy waiting in line with his family in Washington, D.C., to view President Reagan's coffin told a news reporter that he had recently completed a school report on the former president. The youth recalled three principal facts: Reagan was called the "Gipper"; he had a sense of humor; and he loved jellybeans. The reporter may have been satisfied with this statement, but I, as a civic educator, was disturbed. Why did this boy, who appeared to be a fifth or sixth grader, give such a response? Did he simply think those facts were the most interesting ones about Ronald Reagan? Or, were these the only things he really understood from his research about the president and his presidency? I also wondered about the overall class lesson that had bestowed this student with so little powerful information about a president. (1)
In my own research, I have found very few lesson plans that help teach either about the presidency or about presidential elections at the primary level and only a few research studies about what elementary students know or teachers teach about the presidency and elections. (2) Teaching about the presidency helps primary (K-3) and upper elementary (grades 4 through 6) students learn about their own roles as citizens in a democracy. However, such lessons need to focus on building upon and extending a student's prior knowledge, affirming accuracy, correcting misinformation, and encouraging students to consider the civic values that underlie their own conclusions. (3)
In this article, I have provided directions and a short summary of a series of sample activities and a list of recommended resources and websites helpful in preparing active learning lessons about the president and presidential elections. The strategies suggested are appropriate for a range of student abilities and grade levels. I also provide suggestions for modifying questions and procedures for those working with different grade levels.
Specific Suggestions for Teaching about Presidential Elections
The presidential election can be quite a charged issue for some families. I recommend that teachers of young learners refrain from considering the actual presidential candidates. Focus instead on key concepts and ideas about the president and the voting process. Teachers of primary students (K-3) could hold an election to determine the class mascot, while teachers of 4th through 6th grade students could hold an election using historical candidates or fictional people.
Primary students can learn about their right to vote, the voting process, and how to cast a ballot. Even kindergarten students know what a secret is; at that age many learn when it is appropriate to keep a secret and when they should tell others (or ask for help). Building on these ideas, teachers and students can examine such concepts as the secret ballot, polling, presidential cabinet/staff, why people campaign for a candidate, why the president lives and works in the same building, why the president has a special plane, and what the president's duties are. The lessons presented here deal with the secret ballot, voting procedures, the poll, polling, the characteristics needed to be president, defining the job of the president, and the Electoral College.
Characteristics Presidents Need
The Constitution provides only three legal requirements to be president--a candidate must be at least thirty-five years old, must be a U.S. citizen by birth, and must be a resident of the United States for fourteen years--but American voters take maw factors into consideration when choosing their leaden Picture analysis can be used to help students consider the characteristics of the job as well as the traits of a person best suited for performing presidential duties. Young students tend to view the president in such simplified terms as a person doing nice things for people. Having students observe pictures of presidents performing duties can provide students with a more extensive view of the job. …