This year the election was a no-brainer to me, and I started planning the project weeks and months ahead of time with our curriculum advisor at the school. That kind of lead time is not typical, just so you know. I normally start planning a lesson anywhere from a week to day to a half-hour before I’m scheduled to give it. That’s me. I’m hooked on spontaneity and I even do fairly well extemporaneously. I sometimes feel over-planning kills the life of something, but that’s a debate I guess I’ll continue to have with the curriculum advisor.
Curriculum advisor? Sounds a little fancy for a Bronx public school. And that’s a whole other issue. With the teaching standards changing and Bloomberg closing schools right and left, we’ve reached an entirely new level of bureaucracy. An army of people is required to get it right, and they and we get federal funding, a substantial portion of which goes for teacher training. Which is fine. I’ll take any help I can get, since as an NYC Teaching Fellow I started without any experience at all.
Every week our guy would come in from the non-profit organization affiliated with our school. We’d move the plan along, delineating what the students had to learn, how they would innovatively discover it, how I would know they had or had not learned it, and so on. The great part about the length of time it took to pull the whole project together was that the playing field went from having enough people to form a soccer team to the somewhat steady four Republican candidates that we have as of today (3/5).
The first thing to do is assess prior knowledge—that’s education-speak for finding out if the kids know anything about the topic. In this case they knew absolutely nothing, with the exception of one 9th grader who was quite informed and also quite excited about the project. There were kids who didn’t even know there was an election in November. Numerous students didn’t know if Obama were a Democrat or a Republican, if George W. had been a Democrat or a Republican. My feeling is this had more to do with the age than the demographic, but that’s only a hunch.
I gave them this article, which discusses the differences between Democrats and Republicans. It seemed pretty straightforward, and laid things out in a fairly fundamental way. I tried to find information that was relatively unbiased, and started from ground zero, that is, assumed that readers knew nothing. I had the students make a chart on giant Post-it paper about basic aspects of each party and the Democrats' and Republicans' positions on key issues. They loved this activity.
Next I gave them these NYT articles, which profiled the Republican candidates and outlined their specific positions on the issues. I gave groups a candidate and had them present the information to the class. Then I did basically the same thing with Obama using this article, which I was horrified to realize later was from 2008. But I was rushing, and it didn’t even end up mattering that much. And we also watched part of Obama’s State of the Union speech on this handy NYT site that had the text scroll along as he spoke, highlighting the topic he was discussing at the moment.
Some of the students were quite captivated by Obama’s speech and others were bored out of their minds and behaved accordingly. One of the 8th grade students was upset with his fellow classmates’ disruption and said to me: “Miss, they’re acting like this in the face of Obama.” I concurred with him that it was indeed blasphemous.
I brought out the Mitt Romney dog-on-the-roof story only at the end. The purpose was to rank information in order of relevance. In other words the dog story is a valid resource and might have a bearing on their paper’s argument, but it wouldn’t be the first source that was discussed. Nevertheless I did have a kid write a thesis stating that because Obama didn’t treat his dog badly, he was a better president for our country. Overgeneralization? Reductio ad absurbum? I didn’t even get into it. I told him to change it.
Having been given the five articles, the students were supposed to bring in two to three sources of their own. I figured I gave them some kind of groundwork, hopefully enabling them to form some essential opinions, and then let them look for additional material to support what they thought. Time and access to computers was limited, though luckily we were able to end the project by typing in the Mac lab.
It took days to get a thesis, which I described as a one-sentence arguable statement that is an assertion. It’s amazing how many kids would come back with three or four sentences that didn’t assert anything. Many would also argue against themselves in the same paragraph, making it look as if a split-personality were at play. All this while wild shenanigans were going on in the room. I taught them in-text citations and how to write a works cited page. The whole effort was herculean in nature, but it was interesting to find out their views.
The students overwhelmingly professed to be Democratic and support Obama. It’s not too surprising. The student population is about 60% Hispanic, 35% Black, 0.5% White and the rest is made up of Asian, Arabic, Pacific Islander. Over 90% of the students qualify for free lunch. I just don’t think the Republicans have much for them. Interestingly, a few had strong feelings against abortion, and a few others against gay marriage. Of those a few identified with Rick Santorum’s criminalization of abortion even in cases of rape or incest. And then it came out that they didn’t know what incest was.
Most students, however, thought if a woman wasn’t able to take care of a baby abortion should be an option. And a woman making her own decision was a strong factor influencing the way they felt. Similarly on gay marriage—students bridled at the notion of politicians telling people what they could or could not do with their private lives. Most thought it was important to spend money on social programs to help people, and to help people in poverty. And most thought money should be spent to help address climate change and other environmental issues. It’s their world and they have to grow up in it. They also favored reduction of military spending and taxing the wealthy.