Teaching (How to Think) in the Wake of Obama

This past election season, I tried an experiment with the twelve 6th-graders in my history class: I challenged them to develop a fictional candidate and persuade the rest of us to vote for him by creating a commercial.  My hidden agenda was to find out which of the kids' political positions were influenced by their parents and whether, if given the opportunity to evaluate their positions from scratch, they might choose differently.

The students were ready -- dare I say waiting -- for it.  See, our school happens to be in Hyde Park, that ivy-covered, venerated neighborhood otherwise known as the Land of Obama.

The lead-up was slow going.  First we had to learn about rhetorical strategies -- pathos, logos, ethos.  We watched beer commercials, listened to PSAs for seatbelts, dissected newspaper ads.  It took at least a week, but by the end of it, my students could smell a rat within the first few bars of a campaign commercial's soundtrack.  "I hear the scary music coming on," someone would call out.  "That's pathos." 

I was really proud of them. 

Then came week 2: getting to know the issues.  First I gave my students a list of statements, each reflecting a candidate's stance.  I asked them to indicate which candidate they believed had made each statement.  The idea was to see how accurate their knowledge was and perhaps dispel some misconceptions.  Only it didn't work exactly the way I had planned.  When I passed out the worksheet, a girl named Rachel scanned the paper and said, "But this is all the issues.  I don't know this stuff; I know the OTHER stuff." I swiveled around and looked at her, puzzled by this young woman who usually thinks so clearly.  "What other stuff?" I asked.  But she was too immersed in the assignment sheet to notice. 

My students not only had no idea who had made the statements, but barely knew what the statements meant.  I had forgotten how blissfully ignorant we can be at age 11.  So there followed a breakdown of the statements -- and with it, an introduction of the issues. 

Which is where the fun began. 

***

How to explain the concept of a graduated income tax to a 6th-grader? Badly-shaped pies scattered the whiteboard alongside percentages and proportions.  I colored in wedge after wedge of pie, circling them and drawing arrows around them, as though by pressing harder on the whiteboard markers I could drive the concept into my students' brains.  Fortunately, after about 20 minutes, one boy started to nod in understanding.  Others followed in quick succession, and we plodded on.  We tackled welfare, immigration, and national security -- topics I would have thought too stodgy to hold the interest of 11- and 12-year-olds.  In fact, what I witnessed that day was the awakening of my students -- even those who, until this point in the year, had been relatively quiet.  Politics was the way to their hearts. 

Things got interesting when we discussed the candidates' views on health insurance.  This I defined as putting money into a communal pot so that someday, if we need it, there will be enough money in that pot to help individuals through a difficult time.

"But where does that money come from?" asked one boy. 

"From our salaries," I told him.  "Every time we get paid, there's a deduction for insurance."  This led to discussing other deductions like unemployment, which genuinely stumped the kids. 

"I don't get it," said another girl, a puzzled look on her face.  "You get paid for getting fired?"

Well no, I explained.  Not exactly.  "If I got fired from the school," I said, "I would collect unemployment, which would come from all of the deductions I had been paying all along.  And since everyone else has been paying into that same pot, there's enough money for me.  "

"Wait a second," said a girl named Eva.  "You mean you collect money that other people paid?  That's not fair."  A round of murmurs confirmed her outrage.  I smiled, reminded of children's strong need for fairness.  "Okay," she continued tentatively, as though thinking out loud.  "So do people ever get fired on purpose so they can collect unemployment?  Or just not go back to work, since they're getting paid anyway?"

Bingo, I thought, grinning inwardly.  "Sometimes," I conceded aloud, hoping my voice didn't reveal the excitement I was feeling.  "What Eva's talking about is called 'milking the system,' and it's very sad when that happens.  But you don't necessarily pass or abolish laws because of the people who might abuse them."

Once the class had grasped the concept of paying into a "pot," they had other questions.  About welfare, for instance.  One girl got up and pointed at a leftover pie on the board.  "If you give away enough of your paycheck to welfare," she said, "then pretty soon won't you be the one who needs it?"

"Well," I said, measuring my words, "that's why some people are against raising taxes.  But others would argue that most of the taxes are paid by people who can afford them."  The class had run into overtime, and I began wiping the drymark dust off my fingers.  "And now you're beginning to see why people are so passionate about which candidate they're voting for. "

***

The next day, I gave my students the URL for an online quiz produced by ProCon. org, an independent and non-partisan nonprofit.  The 78-question quiz asked everything from "Should abortion remain legal?" to "Should felons be allowed to vote?"  Once completed, the quiz generated a student's preference of candidate from a choice of five: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Virgil Goode. 

Since most of the kids were unable to complete the quiz by the end of the class period, I told them to go home and take it again, and to ask their parents for help when they came to a question they didn't understand.  They chattered as they gathered their belongings, boasting the website's predictions of their respective top candidates.  (The results were generated in real time, so it was very possible for them to change from one minute to another.)  Virgil Goode's name popped up several times.  Only one of the voices I heard mentioned Obama.  I was surprised, but not shocked, given our conversation the day before. 

When we met for class the next day, I asked them if they wanted to share their results. 

Overnight, it seemed, they had become Obama supporters. 

I should have seen it coming.  I should have told the kids to answer only the questions they could understand, and to leave the others blank.  By encouraging them to ask for help, I had tainted my experiment's data. 

***

The unit eventually ended.  Students created their own fictional candidates, most of whom were backing non-controversial causes like fighting bullies.  On the final day, they watched each other's commercials and voted for their favorite.  Rachel won. 

A few weeks later, I met Eva's mother at parent-teacher conferences.  She regaled me with the household drama of her daughter taking the ProCon.org quiz.  "Can you imagine?" she asked in disbelief, "my daughter was pro-life?"  The notion that I might not agree with her sailed right over her head.

A year and a government shutdown later, one thing comforts me: the hope that one day, ten years from now, when my students find themselves in a polling booth, they'll dig up this classroom unit and remember that once upon a time, they knew how to think for themselves.

This past election season, I tried an experiment with the twelve 6th-graders in my history class: I challenged them to develop a fictional candidate and persuade the rest of us to vote for him by creating a commercial.  My hidden agenda was to find out which of the kids' political positions were influenced by their parents and whether, if given the opportunity to evaluate their positions from scratch, they might choose differently.

The students were ready -- dare I say waiting -- for it.  See, our school happens to be in Hyde Park, that ivy-covered, venerated neighborhood otherwise known as the Land of Obama.

The lead-up was slow going.  First we had to learn about rhetorical strategies -- pathos, logos, ethos.  We watched beer commercials, listened to PSAs for seatbelts, dissected newspaper ads.  It took at least a week, but by the end of it, my students could smell a rat within the first few bars of a campaign commercial's soundtrack.  "I hear the scary music coming on," someone would call out.  "That's pathos." 

I was really proud of them. 

Then came week 2: getting to know the issues.  First I gave my students a list of statements, each reflecting a candidate's stance.  I asked them to indicate which candidate they believed had made each statement.  The idea was to see how accurate their knowledge was and perhaps dispel some misconceptions.  Only it didn't work exactly the way I had planned.  When I passed out the worksheet, a girl named Rachel scanned the paper and said, "But this is all the issues.  I don't know this stuff; I know the OTHER stuff." I swiveled around and looked at her, puzzled by this young woman who usually thinks so clearly.  "What other stuff?" I asked.  But she was too immersed in the assignment sheet to notice. 

My students not only had no idea who had made the statements, but barely knew what the statements meant.  I had forgotten how blissfully ignorant we can be at age 11.  So there followed a breakdown of the statements -- and with it, an introduction of the issues. 

Which is where the fun began. 

***

How to explain the concept of a graduated income tax to a 6th-grader? Badly-shaped pies scattered the whiteboard alongside percentages and proportions.  I colored in wedge after wedge of pie, circling them and drawing arrows around them, as though by pressing harder on the whiteboard markers I could drive the concept into my students' brains.  Fortunately, after about 20 minutes, one boy started to nod in understanding.  Others followed in quick succession, and we plodded on.  We tackled welfare, immigration, and national security -- topics I would have thought too stodgy to hold the interest of 11- and 12-year-olds.  In fact, what I witnessed that day was the awakening of my students -- even those who, until this point in the year, had been relatively quiet.  Politics was the way to their hearts. 

Things got interesting when we discussed the candidates' views on health insurance.  This I defined as putting money into a communal pot so that someday, if we need it, there will be enough money in that pot to help individuals through a difficult time.

"But where does that money come from?" asked one boy. 

"From our salaries," I told him.  "Every time we get paid, there's a deduction for insurance."  This led to discussing other deductions like unemployment, which genuinely stumped the kids. 

"I don't get it," said another girl, a puzzled look on her face.  "You get paid for getting fired?"

Well no, I explained.  Not exactly.  "If I got fired from the school," I said, "I would collect unemployment, which would come from all of the deductions I had been paying all along.  And since everyone else has been paying into that same pot, there's enough money for me.  "

"Wait a second," said a girl named Eva.  "You mean you collect money that other people paid?  That's not fair."  A round of murmurs confirmed her outrage.  I smiled, reminded of children's strong need for fairness.  "Okay," she continued tentatively, as though thinking out loud.  "So do people ever get fired on purpose so they can collect unemployment?  Or just not go back to work, since they're getting paid anyway?"

Bingo, I thought, grinning inwardly.  "Sometimes," I conceded aloud, hoping my voice didn't reveal the excitement I was feeling.  "What Eva's talking about is called 'milking the system,' and it's very sad when that happens.  But you don't necessarily pass or abolish laws because of the people who might abuse them."

Once the class had grasped the concept of paying into a "pot," they had other questions.  About welfare, for instance.  One girl got up and pointed at a leftover pie on the board.  "If you give away enough of your paycheck to welfare," she said, "then pretty soon won't you be the one who needs it?"

"Well," I said, measuring my words, "that's why some people are against raising taxes.  But others would argue that most of the taxes are paid by people who can afford them."  The class had run into overtime, and I began wiping the drymark dust off my fingers.  "And now you're beginning to see why people are so passionate about which candidate they're voting for. "

***

The next day, I gave my students the URL for an online quiz produced by ProCon. org, an independent and non-partisan nonprofit.  The 78-question quiz asked everything from "Should abortion remain legal?" to "Should felons be allowed to vote?"  Once completed, the quiz generated a student's preference of candidate from a choice of five: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Virgil Goode. 

Since most of the kids were unable to complete the quiz by the end of the class period, I told them to go home and take it again, and to ask their parents for help when they came to a question they didn't understand.  They chattered as they gathered their belongings, boasting the website's predictions of their respective top candidates.  (The results were generated in real time, so it was very possible for them to change from one minute to another.)  Virgil Goode's name popped up several times.  Only one of the voices I heard mentioned Obama.  I was surprised, but not shocked, given our conversation the day before. 

When we met for class the next day, I asked them if they wanted to share their results. 

Overnight, it seemed, they had become Obama supporters. 

I should have seen it coming.  I should have told the kids to answer only the questions they could understand, and to leave the others blank.  By encouraging them to ask for help, I had tainted my experiment's data. 

***

The unit eventually ended.  Students created their own fictional candidates, most of whom were backing non-controversial causes like fighting bullies.  On the final day, they watched each other's commercials and voted for their favorite.  Rachel won. 

A few weeks later, I met Eva's mother at parent-teacher conferences.  She regaled me with the household drama of her daughter taking the ProCon.org quiz.  "Can you imagine?" she asked in disbelief, "my daughter was pro-life?"  The notion that I might not agree with her sailed right over her head.

A year and a government shutdown later, one thing comforts me: the hope that one day, ten years from now, when my students find themselves in a polling booth, they'll dig up this classroom unit and remember that once upon a time, they knew how to think for themselves.