Media Literacy, Elections and Voting Lesson Plans

If you have politically curious students, your classroom can quickly turn from a place of learning to a room full of hot debate. Students will yell ideas back and forth, often regurgitating what they hear on the news or from their parents. This can create a stressful classroom environment for students who disagree but don’t want to speak up.

Some teachers try to ban political discussions from the classroom entirely; however, you can pivot these debates and turn them into healthy educational activities. Here are several media literacy, elections and voting lesson plans you can use today.

Close-up of hand inserting ballot into box; voting lesson plans concept

Elections and Voting Lesson Plans

Opinionated students are likely to share their political beliefs in almost any classroom, even if they’re simply discussing ideas with friends before class. While you may teach subjects seemingly unrelated to politics, like math or music, you might find yourself tapping into election discussions and using lesson plans that tie into your teaching materials.

“Young people are paying attention, and they want to make an impact,” says the team at Civic Influencers.

Here are a few ways you can have healthy discussions about voting.

Use Past Elections as Examples

One way to teach students about elections without bringing heated discussions into the mix is to look at historical events. The Supreme Court Historical Society developed a high school lesson plan around the 1876 Presidential Election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Students can watch a video, study a political cartoon, examine an electoral vote map and consider how the electoral vote differs from the popular vote. This lesson plan can connect students to history by showing how events from the past are similar to those of today while learning how elections work.

Create an In-Class Election

Shelly Rees, teacher and owner of education company Appletastic Learning, shares a number of books and videos you can bring to your classroom to teach about elections. She also recommends hosting elections in your classroom to see how they work. These can be basic voting exercises for younger learners (like whether cookies or ice cream are the better dessert) or more advanced for older students, with primaries, debates and several parties producing nominees. This process allows students to learn by doing.

Talk About the Voting Rights of Different Americans

Voting is easier for some communities than others. Some states allow all residents to cast mail-in ballots, while others require citizens to vote in person unless they are physically unable to. Other states have restrictions on who can vote (like those with felony records) and what documents are required to vote.

The team at Facing History and Ourselves provides discussion guides for asking students about voting rights and opening your classroom for conversations about what is really fair.

Discuss Down-Ballot Voting

You can also use election lesson plans to discuss different government positions and what the people who hold them do, explains Leah Woodbury at childcare software provider Procare Solutions. What is a mayor and how are they similar or different from the president? How does a city council compare to a senate? Students can learn about down-ballot voting and why local elections are just as important as federal ones.

Include Age Debates in Voting Lesson Plans

What is the right age to let people vote? Jennifer Frost, an associate professor of history at the University of Auckland who focuses on U.S. political developments, created a lesson plan based on the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. Back in 1971, voting age was a hot-button issue with Americans who wondered if 18-year-olds were mature enough to vote.

If you teach high school, consider bringing this debate into your classroom and challenge students to see both sides. You can start a discussion about letting 16-year-olds vote, and what the benefits and drawbacks might be.

Child holding sign that reads no more fake news; voting lesson plans concept

Media Literacy Lesson Plans

Another way to approach political discussions is with media literacy. These lesson plans will challenge students to think about where they get information while giving them tools to evaluate different sources of information.

“Media literacy is the ability to think critically about what you are seeing, reading, and hearing,” says Niall McNulty, an educational publisher and author. “It helps us to analyse information from a variety of viewpoints. With so many sources of information today, critical thinking skills can help people identify reliable sources and filter through the noise to get at the truth.”

Your goal with these lessons isn’t to sway students from one part of the political spectrum to another. You want them to learn how to get their information from reliable sources and compare two or more viewpoints.

Celebrate Media Literacy Week

Media Literacy Week is an annual event held in October and is hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. This is an opportunity to turn a simple lesson plan into a week-long discussion or activity that involves the entire school.

Any grade level can participate, and this year the focus each day is on one of the five components of media literacy’s definition: access, analyze, evaluate, create and act.

Use Discussion Questions to Analyze Media

The National Council for the Social Studies shares multiple lesson ideas for teaching media literacy. Their guide starts with a series of questions to analyze a piece of media. These are basic questions you can run through every time you present a piece of news or story to students to keep their critical thinking skills sharp. These include:

  • Who made this and for what purpose?
  • Who might benefit from this message — politically, economically, etc.?
  • What is left out of this message that might be important to know?
  • How might different people understand this message differently?
  • How do I know this is believable or accurate?

There are more than 20 questions students can ask when looking at a piece of information. They don’t have to ask all of them just to read a news article, but these openers can help students look critically at any information they receive.

Create a Media Literacy Survival Kit

This lesson plan can be completed in one 50-minute session or across several days, depending on how in-depth you want the discussion to go. Students will learn key terms like “satire” and “post-truth” and watch a video hosted by broadcast journalist Hari Sreenivasan. They will develop a series of tools they can turn to if they are unsure about a story or online video.

The lesson plan was developed by Kate Stevens, instructional coach at the Poudre School District and the 2015 Colorado Department of Education’s Online and Blended Teacher of the Year.

Introduce Students to Filter Bubbles

Filter bubbles are used by social media sites to control what you see. For example, if you lean one way politically, social filters will only show you news stories that you are likely to agree with. This creates silos where people only receive one side of information and their views are never challenged. Oli Walkden at Young Citizens shares a lesson plan to pop filter bubbles and evaluate why these are so dangerous.

Take a Deep Dive Into Algorithms

If your students are interested in filter bubbles, consider diving deeper into how algorithms work. The UNC Charlotte Atkins Library created a page for discussing algorithms when teaching digital literacy. There are videos, discussions and activities you can pull from. How does Google work and why does it matter to media bias? Your students will soon have the answers.

Children waving American flags; voting lesson plans concept

Additional Election, Media Literacy and Voting Lesson Plans Resources

There are other tools and games you can use when developing election, media literacy and voting lesson plans. Here are a few reputable sources to turn to.

iCivics is one of the top resources for government and election-based games for kids. The website clearly states how long each game lasts so that you can time them effectively in your lesson plans.

For example, in Cast Your Vote (with a play time of at least 30 minutes), students prepare for election day and make sure they are prepared to make informed voting decisions. In NewsFeed Defenders (with the same play time), students fight hidden ads and false reporting to ensure only accurate content gets shared across the web.

Another useful site is the International Society for Technology in Education. You’ll find a curated list of resources to learn more about media literacy and bring lesson plans back to your classroom. One is the CRAAP test where students evaluate media based on currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose. Your students will love the name and will look out for “CRAAP” articles in the future.

You can also turn to Elections 101, a curriculum created “by Iowa teachers for Iowa teachers,” that has many lesson plans that are applicable nationwide. The activities are broken down into 30, 60 and 90-minute intervals depending on the needs of your class. It includes a 10-day curriculum and Suffrage 101 lesson plans. There is also a feedback form if you think the lesson plans could benefit from additional resources or information.

Your students engage with media every day, even if they are in elementary school. By developing media literacy, election and voting lesson plans, you can give them the tools to be responsible citizens now and throughout their lives – no matter how communications technology changes.

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