Dr. Jay Barth teaches history as it happens.
Recently Barth traveled as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. He left behind his students at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, where he serves as chair of the Department of Politics & International Relations. But they didn’t get to skip class just because Barth was gone.
He taught his “American Parties & Elections” class remotely from Charlotte.
“I blended my traditional classroom teaching where my students were seated as I interacted with them virtually with my own political engagement,” Barth said. “The teaching and learning process in political science works best at the intersection of analysis and real-world experience.”
Like Barth, many teachers on the college level, and in K-12 classes, are using this year’s election as a teachable moment.
And technology, as Barth realized, is a key component.
Northeastern University in Boston designed a website specifically to help students and educational professionals understand this year’s presidential campaigns and political conventions.
The project partnered with Pearson OpenClass, “a free, cloud-based platform for hosting and sharing instructional materials and facilitating collaborative learning activities.” Teachers can register to receive lesson plans that meet Common Core standards, interactive activities, and open-source content.
The site is divided into six sections—history, campaign finance, nominations and conventions, policy and platforms, media and technology, and videos. The videos include interviews with former Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts candidate for United States Congress Richard Tisei, and senior strategist to the Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns Tad Devine.
“We created the website and open course modules to inspire current and future voters, so they can understand the entire campaign process, today, in the context of its history,” said Daniel Urman, a Northeastern University College of Professional Studies faculty member who runs the Law & Policy Doctorate program in a release.
Urman said teachers need interactive lesson plans that help students learn in a multifaceted way.
“The overwhelming need for more engaging and compelling educational tools to explain political processes is at the heart of the ‘Conventions & Campaigns’ site,” he said.
Even politicians are promoting teaching politics in this year’s election.
Last week, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced a series of online seminars for teachers that include topics such as the Electoral College, calculation of votes, and a model on setting up a mock election. The series launches at the end of the month.
“Survey after survey shows dismal results in terms of students knowing the most basic things about government, you know, even that there are three branches of government, even the structural things much less the critical thinking you need to be a citizen in a democracy,” Merrill told CT News Junkie.
One company, Mimio, recently launched a “Get Out the Vote” series of lesson ideas for K-12 teachers. Lessons in kindergarten through fourth grade focus on vocabulary challenges to learn basic political terms like “candidate” and “democracy.” Upper grades focus on how to create an electoral college and issues. The courses focus heavily on math and language arts skills.
“These lessons provide a great opportunity to tie the social studies curriculum to timely, relevant topics,” says Paul Gigliotti, an eighth-grade teacher at Parma Senior High School in Parma, Ohio, and a member of the MimioConnect teacher team.
Voters under 25 often don’t see how politics are relevant to them. But these interactive, real-time programs will likely increase the relevance of Washington on their lives better than textbooks.
Barth, who has also previously run for office, saw the importance of connecting his students to history with the re-election of the country’s first African-American president. In fact, he showed them how political science actually works in the field.
“This exercise was just one of the ways in which I try to teach at the intersection of analysis and real-world experience, hopefully modeling for students that smart advocates remain analytical and that smart analysts of politics gain ongoing real-world political experiences that pushes them to ask good questions that they wouldn’t otherwise know to ask,” he said.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com