Acting out key figures from American history, 3rd/4th graders simulated the election of 1800. As Adams’ Federalists debated Jefferson’s Republicans, students leveraged primary sources, honed communication skills, learned phases of the election process and came to appreciate the challenges of responsible engaged citizenship amidst the 2016 election.
The project began with these words affixed atop the classroom bulletin board: “You’re not entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to your informed opinion.”
Dressed in colonial wigs and fully embodying the personas of two historical figures–Thomas Jefferson and John Adams–the students stepped onstage at the culmination of their simulation of the election of 1800 with confidence.
They knew the issues inside and out, they spoke with clarity and poise, they argued with civility, and both those who won and lost did so with grace.
Third- and fourth-grade students at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor walked through every phase of the election process, including holding party conventions, nominating a candidate, campaigning, debating, creating a ballot, and inviting the community to participate by voting for a leader. They concluded the simulation with acceptance and concession speeches.
Through this process, students learned how to research using primary and secondary sources. They evaluated information in consideration of historical context. Students developed a remarkable ability to speak from the perspective of a person who lived centuries before they were born.
In contrast to the contemporary election, these students embraced the need for respect and civility in public discourse.
When the audience of parents, grandparents and a sitting Congresswoman came to the school to witness the live debate, they were watching polished students who had learned how to think.
How do you teach 8- and 9-year-olds about elections and citizenship at a time when the election playing out on the national stage is divisive and definitively not kid-friendly?
Looking back in the historical record, one election stood out. Politics in 1800 were bitter, rife with inaccuracies in the media, and many of the issues were similar to those of the present day: states’ rights vs federal power, immigration laws, and the influence of foreign entities on the electoral process. This contentious election provided the grist for discussions and demonstrations of critical thinking, communication, and political discourse while sidestepping the partisan passions of the 2016 election. Thus, I decided to design a simulated experience of a historical election rather than teach about the one underway.
To design an effective simulation for this age group, I sought out experts from the nearby University of Michigan. I worked with researchers, Jeff Stanzler, Jeff Kupperman, and Michael Fahy, who created the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT), an online simulation in which middle and high school students engage in debate and discussion on contemporary issues as characters from history. JCAT’s developers generously availed themselves throughout the project to give input and support to our efforts. To learn tenets of debate and historical context, I enlisted two law professors (and parents in the school).
I was also influenced by the work of Dr. Roberta Golinkoff and Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek whose research about the science of learning inspired their book Becoming Brilliant (Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, 2016). (Disclaimer: Dr. Hirsh-Pasek is a close relative.) Central to their work is the imperative that education focuses on the six C’s of 21st Century learning: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence. In particular, I focused on content, critical thinking, communication, and confidence. These principles are embedded throughout this and every learning project I design.
Yet, an online simulation would not work for elementary students–they needed to live the experience and get significant scaffolding with skills such as weighing the validity of information and understanding the historical context and issues at play. Our work sought to put elementary school students in a position to think critically about the issues surrounding them, and in contrast to what was being modeled for them throughout the 2016 election, doing this in a way that stressed the importance of respectful public discourse, especially when they are arguing on different sides of an issue.
Project objectives and outline
At the forefront of this project were four main objectives:
- Learning the historical content by researching and analyzing primary and secondary sources to evaluate claims and information
- Engaging in respectful debate, using logical reasoning to create coherent arguments
- Communicating orally with confidence and clarity (public speaking)
- Acquiring the skills necessary to become informed citizens
Our specific learning objectives included:
- Students will understand the election process.
- Students will understand the issues, characters, and historical context of the election of 1800.
- Students will be able to make claims and use reasons with evidence to support those claims.
- Students will be able to articulate their own perspective on an issue by evaluating information.
- Students will be able to take the perspective of a character or another point of view and make a reasoned argument from that side.
- Students will be able to use logical reasoning and evidence, and counterarguments to engage in respectful debate.
- Students will understand how to remain respectful and civil throughout a debate or argument.
- Students will be able to communicate orally with appropriate structure and form.
- Students will gain confidence in their speaking skills through practice.
- Students will persevere through a challenging experience, such as losing a debate.
- Students will collaborate by listening and sharing ideas in a group.
Learning the historical content
To immerse students in the content of the project, each student chose a historical character. Using primary and secondary sources, as this historical character they needed to endorse either John Adams or Thomas Jefferson. They had to learn about the candidates–their backgrounds and beliefs–and transfer their knowledge to create an endorsement from the viewpoint of their historical figure, such as Alexander Hamilton or Martha Washington. This required that they evaluate the information they read, analyze their positions, and transfer their learning to determine their stance.
They weren’t merely reading the historical record or learning the general context of the election, they were highly motivated to research and understand the issues at play. Students combed through historical quotes from our founding fathers and mothers to lend authenticity to their speeches.
“[Adams and I] both want the thirteen colonies to come together. Vote John Adams! Thank you,” Nina said during the Federalist Convention, speaking as George Washington.
“When I wrote the Bill of Rights I wanted to make sure the government doesn’t take over the United States and that is what he believes, just as I do,” wrote Esther and Livnat for the Federalist convention as James Madison.
Students worked in their two camps to come up with a campaign strategy, and ultimately craft talking points for the final, live debate. The authenticity of the simulation model propelled students to learn together. They had to gather this information as a necessity–so that they would be able to convince a voting populate that their arguments and stance were superior to those of their opponent. They created campaign posters, newspaper articles, and podcasts as part of their campaigning efforts.
[View the web page created for viewing Campaign Posters and other materials.]
[Students also took over the school newspaper for one issue to write about the election simulation: The Untold Myth Issue 2: Special Election Issue.]
Engaging in respectful debate
Well before students took the stage as Jefferson and Adams in their live debate, they became well versed in their argumentation skills. Teaching debate began with practicing on a simple, relatable topic: Should students be rewarded for good behavior? I coached the students to jot down points for both sides, converse back and forth, persuade with reason and evidence rather than emotion, and not take things personally.
I wanted to make sure students learned how to make a reasoned, evidenced argument, starting with a clear and strong claim. During our judged debates, students were evaluated by their peers or by an adult judge on the strength of their reasons and evidence, as well as volume, tone, and clarity of their speaking.
[Find our guidelines on What Makes a Good Debate.]
[Students used a graphic organizer to structure their arguments and anticipate counterarguments.]
We emphasized the importance of being able to understand and evaluate any argument, even if it was not a perspective they personally hold. In this way, students prepared for the counterarguments they anticipated from the other side.
An essential component to learning debate was embracing the need for respect and civility. Students were explicitly taught how to embody these skills. Pirkei Avot (1:15) teaches us to greet every person with a “sever panim yafot” (pleasant facial expressions). Students practiced their “panim yafot” throughout our debates. They learned how to handle losing or winning gracefully. We worked on acknowledging and accepting any feelings that might arise during argumentation, but ultimately moving on together after a win or loss. Students were coached to be proud but respectful if they won, and to empathize with the other side.
Students crafted a list of what might be challenging when engaging in debate, and then brainstormed advice on how to deal with these issues.
“The other side just knocked down my point or argument,” one poster listed as a possible challenging issue, and among the advice was: smile and keep believing in your team, and try to think of another reason for your side.
[View all of the challenges we came up with.]
Naturally, the third and fourth graders were apprehensive about holding a debate or giving speeches in front of any sort of audience. Some students were not even willing to step in front of their peers, let alone the broader school community.
We set out to look for models of effective public speaking. Students turned to Youtube to learn oration skills from President Obama before becoming Jefferson or Adams. They took notes on all of the tricks used in public speaking, such as addressing the audience, pausing for applause, or emphasizing certain words. (Thus, most speeches concluded with some iteration of “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”)
Starting with the conventions, students had a chance to speak in front of their trusted peers. From there, they went from class to class, campaigning in front of others who might not have any context for the issues. Students learned the value of tailoring their messages to the particular constituencies with whom they were speaking. For example, when speaking to the younger students, the Thomas Jefferson campaign focused on touting their candidate for popularizing ice cream in this country. The Adams camp spoke about how their candidate worked hard despite coming from a poor and uneducated family.
By the time they stepped onstage at the debate, they had spoken multiple times in front of a variety of groups, and had developed clear and consistent talking points. They knew the issues and they were ready. This was the basis for their confidence.
Becoming an informed citizen
All too often, the politics of our society has turned into one team versus another, rather than reasoned arguments on varied positions. It is imperative that students learn the skills to find their own informed voice if we are to have a healthy democracy. This idea drove much of this work: how can we train young minds to engage respectfully in discourse? The answer: teach them explicitly how to evaluate information, form conclusions, and engage in respectful debate.
Discussion and debate have been crucibles of Jewish learning since the time of our Sages. We need to bring these skills to the forefront of the education system so that students can move past being passive recipients of information.
This project taught students how to move beyond parroting their parents to being able to understand and analyze issues nested in the framework of history. And the lessons flowed well beyond the classroom. By the time Jessica assumed the role of Thomas Jefferson, she had thoroughly researched the issues at play in that historical context. Josh asserted that big government was the only way to ensure the safety and security of a young nation. Esther gave a compelling counter-argument on-the-spot during the live debate, using the skills she learned from the law professors. Livnat, a child initially unwilling to speak in front of her classmates, ultimately volunteered to give the acceptance speech should Jefferson win–and he did; she delivered her speech to the immeasurable pride of her parents, friends, and teachers watching from the audience.
When debate day arrived, all donned Colonial wigs for the occasion. And all learned what it meant to weigh the evidence, to use primary sources, and to speak on behalf of their positions. When the audience of the student body, teachers, parents, grandparents, community members, and a sitting Congresswoman came into the school to witness the live debate, they were watching polished students who had learned how to think.
[Watch the debate here: John Adams/Thomas Jefferson Debate]
[View the online ballot: Election Ballot]
Reenacting the election of 1800 revealed how effectively this simulation model, based on content, communication, critical thinking, and confidence, can be applied to many different learning experiences. I have since applied it to other social studies topics, such as simulating the three branches of government to debate and pass bills, or hearing a Supreme Court case on requiring boys to wear kippot, to becoming Pilgrims to decide whether to make the trip across the ocean to the New World, to reenacting the Lewis and Clark expedition’s decision about whether to make camp for the winter or cross the Rockies. This model has also worked in the Jewish Studies classroom, where students were visited from “Samuel the Biblical judge” (the teacher dressed in a robe and beard), and they shared their prepared arguments with “him” on whether or not the Israelites should get a king.
In Jewish day schools, where integration is an essential element of our practice, we have seen this simulation model work well for bringing together the many parts of teaching and learning–combining research skills, writing, reading, and thinking skills with content learning, while promoting collaboration and critical thinking.
Every project is unique. Every school is unique. Every community is unique. While there are aspects of this particular simulation experience that might not work in other contexts–it may not make sense to ask the community to vote on the outcome of the Lewis and Clark expedition–the generalized concept works well for so many disciplines, and promotes integration across areas of study.
Most topics are amenable to debate, and students respond well to role playing. The result, as evidenced in our election simulation, is that students are highly motivated to learn together in ways that build on 21st Century skills.
These kinds of interactive and integrative experiences directly encourage students to move past mere recall of information toward analysis, evaluation, and the creation of a new stance based on their evaluations.
This simulation model was an intensive effort on my part, and garnered considerable support from the entire school community. The students worked with one another, with parent volunteers, with staff members, and with members of the community to make this project a great success. This is not the effort of just one teacher–it is the result of a school culture of collaboration.
It was highly labor intensive–there were no lesson plans in place for this project. It required buy-in from administrators and teachers throughout the school, who were willing to give up some of their valuable teaching time to support these students.
For good and bad, not every student could be a winner. Students sometimes found it hard to understand that they were gaining so much knowledge despite losing a particular debate.
A project like this has to be immersive and has to consider students’ interests. For example, during our simulation, the students and I were particularly interested in podcasting and audio recordings, so we ended up making a lot of podcasts.
Another way to embrace the immersive nature of a simulation might be to enlist the entire teaching team to find a way to bring together multiple areas of study.
We were fortunate to have among the parent body a talented and dedicated writer, who approached me one day to insist that people needed to know about what we were doing in our school. We were delighted that our project was of interest on both the local and national media fronts.
- The Atlantic: What’s the Best Way to Teach 9-Year-Olds About Democracy?
- The Washington Post: This school is holding a presidential election – but Trump and Clinton aren’t on the ballot
- MLive: Hebrew Day School ditches modern politics in mock presidential election
- EdWeek: Learning How to Lose a Presidential Election: A Primer for Students
- MLive: Jefferson tops Adams in mock election of 1800 at Hebrew Day School
- Detroit Jewish News: Ann Arbor Hebrew Day School Students Act Out The Election Of 1800
- Beineynu Article for The Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor
Laura Pasek is the third and fourth grade teacher at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. Laura has been teaching in Jewish Day Schools for 8 years. Prior to teaching, Laura wrote for a variety of media outlets, such as The Jerusalem Post, The Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, and National Geographic School Publishing. Laura holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brandeis University (in the Dayschool Leadership Through Teaching program, or DeLeT), and is currently in the Teacher Leadership Fellowship at Brandeis University. Her educational interests include authentic/experiential learning, integrated learning, and teacher leadership. She has taught second through fifth grade.