Perspective-Taking This Election Season

By Samara Soiref, Fifth Grade General Studies Teacher

For this year’s election unit, I wanted to find a way for the students to truly understand the process of electing a president, but I did not want to address the actual candidates or issues. I therefore decided to engage the students in a mock election for Class President so that they could experience the election process firsthand.The class voted on issues that were important to them, decided on names for their political parties, and picked roles out of a hat.  Campaign workers furiously prepared advertisements and readied their candidates for debates. Candidates worked on solidifying their platforms, reporters interviewed and observed the goings-on in each campaign headquarters, and the “debate crew” prepared two debate sessions. It was an exciting whirlwind!

Perhaps my favorite part of the election unit was when students created reasons to support their party’s platform, even if they do not personally agree with the idea.  Students who would love to be able to skip class, for example, were expected to find reasons that this policy would not work; similarly, students who adore waterparks explained the many potential safety risks that accompany them.  

Perspective-taking is a core skill in the fifth grade curriculum and this exercise gave students a meaningful way to experiment with the skill.

Another exciting aspect of the unit were the primary and presidential debates.  Student-planned and student-run, these debates allowed the candidates to express their ideas and challenge their opponents in respectful, productive ways.  Our students improved their ability to engage in positive and articulate discourse with one another.

In the midst of all the excitement, our election fell into the trap that real-world elections also fall victim to: students got swept up in the excitement and it began to feel more like a popularity contest than an election about the issues. Feelings got hurt and tempers flared as students felt the pressure of the competition.

This brief episode of contention and conflict opened the door for some valuable teachable moments.  We discussed the fine line between wanting to have an authentic election experience and also taking peers’ feelings into account.  We talked about ways to work with, listen to, and respect one another’s ideas.  We processed the potentially damaging effects of attack ads and the tensions we face when we want to win but don’t want to tear down our peers.  The students came up with this impressive list of steps to address the challenges we faced as a class community:

  • No bribes for votes
  • No attack ads
  • Vote the issues, not the person
  • If unaffiliated, help each campaign equally
  • Keep your vote private to avoid hurt feelings
  • Ad limit so no one group has more than another
  • Help any group who is behind

I was touched by how they put their own feelings aside to offer thoughts on how to move forward as a group.  This conversation enabled us to have frank discussions about what it means to have one person win while others lose, and what we can do to be gracious in victory and defeat. It also led to fantastic debates in which students actually discussed issues and their positions, and not each other’s character.

The social-emotional curriculum and the dynamics of our fifth grade learning community played a significant role in this unit.  As their teacher, I was challenged to provide the students with an authentic experience, while keeping in mind that they are still learning how to navigate complex social interactions (that even adults have not mastered!). Throughout the unit, the students engaged with genuine emotions in purposeful, respectful, and educative ways. I was tremendously impressed by the skills they developed, the maturity with which they interacted with complicated issues, and their thoughtful approach to the entire unit.

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