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Tools to develop students’ political literacy

Elections are opportunities for teachers to enrich their daily curriculum with current and real-life lessons about how democracy in American society operates. Normally teaching about elections is limited to the social studies classroom, but that narrow viewpoint is akin to seeing the Grand Canyon through a pinhole. Here are a few websites that can help you expand how you use the teachable moments that elections provide.

Education World ( is a rich resource for lessons about the elections and the voting process. To find lessons that deal with the issues in the current election cycle, enter “election” in the search box and then click on the link to Special Themes: Primaries, Voting and Elections. Here you will find a list of lesson plans and other useful information and exercises that will make your students literate about many local election issues and the process of electing a local official.

Political cartoons can help students understand the issues and develop visual literacy in an entertaining way. Scroll down to the link called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Election: Editorial Cartoons. If you click on the link to Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonist’s Index you will find the vast collection of satiric political cartoons. The cartoons that depict the preacher in Florida who threatened to burn the Quran as an “idiot” and the press as “idiot facilitators” could spark some lively discussion about the role that media plays in our society.

Cartoons are easy segues for teaching about the election process. But, what are some of this year’s campaign issues? Scroll down one more link to Meet the Press. Once that page opens, you’ll find a series of resources that review the issues facing the country. The CNN Election Center helps explain why midterm elections matter and highlights key stories and the latest election news. Another resource is Decision 2010 from MSNBC that compiles a wide range of articles about the upcoming election.

Also on Education World’s site are pre-K and elementary grade resources that explain why every vote counts, provide a short list of the major issues, help students analyze campaign ads and show how to get to know the candidates. But, there are other sites that can prove helpful as well.

Project-Vote Smart ( has lessons for K-12 students. Click on the link For Teachers in the left side navigation column. The lessons and activities range from fact hunts for each state to a sophisticated lesson on the influence of special-interest groups. There is even a political courage test to evaluate your local political leader and a listing of who donates money to the candidate.

OpenSecrets ( provides a detailed list of campaign finances and if you follow the money, you can help students understand why candidates vote the way they do.

If you want to teach students how to see through political rhetoric and campaign ad spin, then direct them to FactCheck ( If you click on the Classroom tab just under the banner you will enter the site where you will find lesson plans that help students develop critical thinking skills by analyzing the hyperbole endemic during election campaigns.

One lesson that helps clarify the difference between matters of fact and matters of values will help students delve into background beliefs that influence decisions. Another lesson, called “The Language of Deception,” examines how the cognitive and emotional aspects of words can sway opinions or call the electorate to action.

There is much more on the Internet that deals with the electoral process and the current election cycle, but these Web resources can help jump-start students along the road to political literacy.

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