National Political Conventions Offer Teachable Moments for High School Students

Teachers use the 2012 election season to help students become informed citizens.

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Delegates crowd the floor at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 28, 2012 during the Republican National Convention. The 2012 Republican National Convention is expected to host 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternate delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories.
Delegates crowd the floor at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Florida, on August 28, 2012 during the Republican National Convention. The 2012 Republican National Convention is expected to host 2,286 delegates and 2,125 alternate delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories.

Delegates, politicians, and journalists swarmed Tampa this week for the Republican National Convention. Next week, Democrats will follow suit in Charlotte, N.C.

While the conventions each have their fair share of flair—think balloons, confetti, and after parties—they also deal with some serious business as well.

Each party uses its convention to officially establish its political platform and nominate its respective candidates for U.S. president and vice president.

[Get full coverage of the 2012 election.]

The conventions—and election season as a whole—provide ample opportunity for high school teachers to engage their students in the political process.

"When you get a moment like an election season, it's a time when a lot of the issues rise to the surface," says Susan Graseck, director of the Choices for the 21st Century Education program. "Students are going to be seeing it, hearing it, and not really understanding it."

The Choices program is an education initiative that provides curriculum, teaching resources, and professional development opportunities to help educators teach important events—including "Teaching with the News," a free tool to help classrooms follow the U.S. presidential election.

Using the conventions as a springboard to deconstruct where each party stands on political issues can help students make sense of the political rhetoric, says Jeff Silva-Brown, who teaches government and economics at Ukiah High School in California.

"They are less informed than you might think with all this massive amount of information," he says. "This is a generation that is apathetic because they don't feel like their voices matter."

Breaking down policy and political issues to the state, local, and even school level helps make it relevant to students, says Silva-Brown, who also ties in fundamental economic principles so students learn to consider how policy impacts the economy.

Simply showing a speech or a debate isn't enough to engage students either, says Kevin Conlon, a high school social studies teacher at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago who uses class time to hold mock debates and have students analyze political speeches.

"As a teacher, I feel that it's even more important to have a discussion so that kids aren't going to put a [campaign] badge on because it's cool," he says. "They actually connect to the candidates and have the ability to have a discussion about ideas."

[Find out how students performed on the national civics test.]

Teaching students to analyze and debate issues helps shape them into better citizens, Conlon says.

"Citizenship involves thinking skills—assessing what your own values are, what's important to you, and how does what the candidate says correspond to you."

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