Students as Thought Partners

Our most recent project is coming to end at just the right time to start a project on the upcoming presidential election.   We had been exploring various ideas.  Below are some of the notes we made.

  • Get involved in campaign
  • Take surveys–of peers, used to predict youth vote
  • analysis of youth vote over the last several elections to understand and predict outcomes
  • How is public opinion influenced? What factors sway public opinion?
  • should the US maintain the electoral college and two party system?
  • how big a role does money make? role of non-elected groups
  • rational argument and evidence rather than emotion or faith: script for civil ad
  • youth issues?
  • presentation to parents or other voter: consider an environmental issues (energy, natural resources, diet and health concerns, agricultural) Living planet–take any recommendations or concerns and creating a survey around that an issue of choice

As we spoke of these, we thought any of them could be interesting, but nothing really sang to us.  It could have been the quality of the ideas, but I think it had more to do with the fact that we had, as an ideal, the notion that we would get student input for the design of the project.   We had yet to coordinate our schedules with students’ to allow for that sort of collaboration, and in the interim, we had tried to work it out anyway.  See how well it worked?

This last Thursday, we finally coordinated with some of the students to talk about the project.  It was great and fascinating to hear them talk about what interested them about the election, and we quickly started going down the rabbit hole of the Citizens United ruling, and the role of super PACs in the election.

One of the most noteworthy features of the conversation came from the fact that they are now in their third year of doing PBL, and they knew the questions to ask.  “How are you going to incorporate the Environmental Science?  What are we going to read?  How do they all tie together?”  

And then came this comment from a student: “We need to make sure that we start with the standards.   We don’t want a theme-based project where you then later jam in standards, trying to make it fit, and the teaching doesn’t really help us complete the project.”

Are you kidding me?    This is the refrain I used over and over with teachers who I coached, and now I am hearing from students?   Brilliant. Awesome.  Fantastic.  It reinforced for me that getting the students to the table for project-design is the way to go.

We ended up thinking a lot about the upcoming debates, and the ads that are assailing Americans.   With an overriding value of wanting the efforts of the students to be real, in a way that could affect the election, we came up with an idea of, “When a candidate says ____________, it means _________”  The idea here is to borrow a statement from the debates or an ad, about some issue.    Then create some sort of electronic visual (a video?  An infographic?)  that connect the statement to:

  • Who the candidate is likely targeting with the statement
  • Who has funded that candidate, and is likely to have influenced that statement
  • The Party Platform
  • Recent Events
  • Longer-term history
  • Objectively-verifiable facts
  • Possible effects on Electoral College outcome (which goes to that first item of targeted audience)
If each group generates something on a couple of statements, then we could post the visuals to a website where voters could take a look, and understand the complex nature of simple statements from Presidential Candidates.
For our part as teachers, we make sure that students identify at least one statement that has to do with environmental concerns – likely it will be energy policy – and one statement where there is clear overreach in the attribution to the executive branch for some accomplishment.   (“If I am elected, I will repeal this tax!” or “If I am elected, I will add this tax!”)
Some questions remain:
– What is the best way to incorporate statistics?  Seems like looking at polling stats is a good idea, so confidence intervals could be helpful.  The challenge:  haven’t even really dealt with normal distributions, or probability yet.
– Is this enough to create a need to know about the workings of the electoral college, and the extent of power of the executive branch?
– What do they read for English?  Do we look for fiction, or no?
Despite the lingering questions, the fact remains that we have found  a project idea that we love, and we couldn’t have done it without student input.


2 thoughts on “Students as Thought Partners

  1. Great stuff! If you haven't already, you should check out the #myparty12 resources in Echo. It's fantastic knowing that so many students are getting opportunities to practice analytic thinking in preparation for their first presidential election at or near voting age. As for your questions:
    – I love the idea of examining statistics that politicians cite (ie. Romney's 47% vs. Occupy's 99%) Or, looking at electoral college probability (i.e. What are Obama's/Romney's most likely paths to winning through electoral votes? What are some less likely paths?). What if each week, students submitted statistics-based statements given by candidates and you selectively choose ones to deconstruct in workshops?
    – As for the electoral branch NTK, I could see this working with the right breadcrumbs or by simply adding a twist (“Now, we need to know if the candidates actually have the power to DO what they are saying.” Or, “Why do New Mexico voters see so many fewer presidential ads when compared to Ohio or Pennsylvania voters?”
    – Books: “All the Kings Men” or “Election”

    Have fun!


  2. Pingback: When Project Rollout = “meh” | Intrepid Ed.

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