Asking young children to vote for REAL political candidates does not encourage authentic critical thinking, it only collects information about who the parents will vote for. For example, the Weekly Reader poll of students is considered a very good predictor of how a presidential election will go because the children vote the way they hear their parents say THEY will vote.
In 1990 I wrote a curriculum project that engages children on their level, using 'personalities' with whom they are very familiar. The activity is called "Your Vote Counts" and can be used with early childhood-primary students. It can be done in 2-3 days, or the unit can be stretched to a much longer period. The activity culminates on Election Day when adults are going to the polls.
I introduce the concept of voting with activities like selecting the story for the day, which game to play, etc., while emphasizing the concept of voting only once. We start by congregating near the book of choice, counting the number in each group. On subsequent days we use a sign-up sheet to record votes. You could also use unifix cubes or photo/name tags.
Next I explain that we are going to pretend that we need another classroom helper so that there will be enough help when children don't understand their work, or when there are other problems needing solutions (such as arguments between children).
I tell the students that we are going to pretend that Cookie Monster and The Count both want the job as imaginary classroom helper, but that we can select only one of them. Over a period of days we examine the promises of each candidate. Cookie Monster's promise is "Acookie for every kid!" He intends to deal with problems and difficult work by handing out cookies to those in need of help.
The Count says, "You can count on me!" promising to help children think about how to solve problems, and to teach them how to find the right answers. In addition to large size 'campaign posters' showing the candidates' slogans, I give each child an 8 " x 11" copy of each poster to take home to aid in discussion with familiy.
During the unit, we seize opportunities to discuss which candidate would be most helpful in specific situations as they arise in class. We talk about whether just eating cookies that make us feel good will really help with the problem. I never tell the children what I think, but I elicit a lot of discussion. I also encourage families to do the same at home.
On election day we have a ballot box which has been created in class, children serve as 'checkers', marking off names of those who vote, a ballot person who hands out the ballots, and ballot sorters and counters. I rig up a voting booth where voters can mark their ballots with privacy. We post the sorted ballots as a graph on our classroom door, post each candidate's total and discuss the results.
Most years the winner is Cookie Monster! (Though the distribution of votes is usually close to equal) When I peek at children as they mark their ballots, MANY pencils hover over The Count's box, but then move to mark a vote for Cookie Monster!
For a period following the election, I seize opportunities to examine how helpful Cookie Monsters' cookies would be when there is a dispute in the classroom, or when the children need help with something. We discuss how The Count might help.
In spite of the election results, I find that the related discussions, activities and feedback from children and families indicate that it is a worthwhile activity in terms of presenting opportunities for critical thinking, analysis, debate, in addition to many literacy and math activities. An incidental effect is that when children arrive at home on Election Day wearing their "I Voted Today!" badges, they remind their parents to be voters on Election Day!
This project received a "Celebration of Excellence" award. Celebration of Excellence is a program sponsored by the Connecticut State Department of Education and the General Assembly with financial support from business and philanthropic groups. Teams and individual teachers are recognized for exemplary curriculum projects. The Celebration of Excellence web site at http://126.96.36.199/ provides more information about the program.
Click here to visit the Connecticut Celebration of Excellence winning curriculum projects for 1996: http://188.8.131.52/96PROJECTS/96SUBJ.HTM . Go to this address for 1997 Connecticut Celebration of Excellence curriculum projects from 1997: http://184.108.40.206/97PROJECTS/97SUBJ.HTM