How I used the presidential primaries in class

This is a presidential election year, which can provide plenty of fodder for non-academic research. Usually when I am approving topics, I eliminate those which require primarily the use of news sources. Though the reading level in Opposing Viewpoints is often not a lot higher than that of a newspaper or online news source, the articles are generally longer and more complete. However, because I think it is important for students to know what is going on in the country they live in, even if it is not their country, I like to have controversial issues papers during the election cycle.

Introducing these can be difficult. I can’t simply list these off, because while I pay attention to politics, I ignore a lot of issues that are controversial. This may be my own bias in thinking that those topics aren’t controversial or it might be that I have read a lot and haven’t been persuaded one way or another, so I avoid the elephant and her doo-doo. And sometimes trying to look up a complete list of controversial issues online just drops you down a rabbit hole.

This year the way I introduced them in some of my classes was through online quizzes, before the primaries were finished. There were several news quizzes that listed issues and had you pick whether you agreed or disagreed with them. Then it let you know which candidates you were most in agreement with. One of those, www.votehelp.com, now presents a list of issues for you to agree or disagree with on a continuum and asks you to rate their importance. Then it tells you whether you are closer on the issues to Obama or McCain. I am not sure how they can do that when politicians swing like weathervanes, but at least they have made a stab at it.

After the students had identified themselves with certain positions on various issues, I asked them to take one of those they felt strongly about and research two candidate’s sides, looking for persuasive arguments. Right now this would come out more as a position paper, describing McCain and Obama’s rhetoric, so I used this before the primaries in the spring. Now I would ask them to look for arguments on both sides of the issue, not relating to a candidate. Often the candidate’s are asked to speak in sound bites, so their presentation might be minimal. However, people arguing on both sides of an issue can be found in the stronger political blogs. I would refer them, perhaps, to some of those: Daily Kos, the Huffington Post, Michelle Malkin, and Townhall. From there it would be easier to follow links to other sources.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

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