Lakewood Ranch Herald

Manatee teachers use presidential election in the classroom

MANATEE -- A few weeks ago, the gifted fourth- and fifth-graders at Freedom Elementary School were charged with planning a school assembly on Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and the upcoming presidential election. But the presentation couldn't contain opinions.

It was a tough assignment, says teacher Jacqueline Galvin. Her students had debated presidential issues in her class. Others had already developed political opinions based on conversations with their families. Sometimes, the media they researched contained bias too.

"We tried to incorporate things that would keep the little ones interested," Galvin said. "The media is really opinionated -- we talked about making educated decisions."

This election season, several district schools saw the presidential race as an opportunity to teach students about the campaign process, the origins of democracy and the importance of voting.

But how comprehensive should learning about the election be? For Manatee County school teachers, incorporating the election into the classroom needed to strike the right balance between bipartisan and individual thinking, facts and opinions and the age of the student.

"We tell them your opinion is for your vote," said Freedom guidance counselor Sherri Brunner, who also helped lead the election assembly and planned a mock election for students on Tuesday.

Brunner said keeping the assembly focused on the importance of voting and basic facts about the candidates highlights being an active participant in the voting process, not the heated issues that sometimes divide adults.

"It's a wonderful training in recog

nizing facts versus opinions," Brunner said. "And that's hard for all of us."

And when Freedom's gifted students, wearing top hats with red, white and blue bands, stood in front of their entire school for two assemblies this past Friday, they just delivered the facts to their first audience -- a giggly and excitable K-2 crowd whose "ahs" and "whoas" were not hard to interpret:

Mitt Romney is 65. ("That's old!")

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. ("Cool!")

Mitt Romney has five kids: Taggart, Matthew, Benjamin, Joshua and Craig. ("So many!")

Barack Obama's favorite food is shrimp linguini. Giggles. (Face it, "linguini" is a funny word.)

King Middle School held a mock election Friday, with retired educators as poll leaders. President Obama beat Gov. Romney, 2-to-1.

Tara Rhodes Takacs, a U.S. history teacher, said learning about the electoral college and how the presidential election works is already part of her eighth-grade curriculum. She gave extra credit to students who watched and took notes on the presidential debates, hoping to inspire a demographic that will grow up to be young voters.

"The biggest thing I think that is important is just getting young people ready to vote so that our youngest 18- to 24-year-olds will turn out to vote," Takacs said.

Haile Middle School teacher MaryAnn Cuthbertson helped spearhead a mock election at her school last Thursday, and the results were announced Monday.

Of 887 students who voted, Mitt Romney edged out Barack Obama by just 19 votes, which gave Cuthbertson and other teachers the perfect opportunity to explain Florida's history as a swing state and the difference between the electoral college and the popular vote.

"This is a perfect, teachable moment," said Cuthbertson, who discussed platforms such as education and foreign policy with her civics students.

But heated and controversial subjects, such as gay rights and abortion, are purposely not discussed in her class.

"Absolutely not. Not at this age," Cuthbertson said. "I feel more comfortable teaching issues that are not so sensitive. I encourage them to go home and have those conversations with their families."

Sometimes the need to stay age-appropriate translates in unique ways.

There are five candidates for second-graders at Samoset Elementary to vote for on Tuesday: Duck. Cow. Hen. Sheep. Pig. This special election is based on the children's book "Duck for President" by Doreen Cronin, in which farm animals negotiate with a farmer.

This year, every second-grader picked an animal out of a hat and was responsible for campaigning for their animal, including memorizing campaign speeches on index cards and making posters for the hallways. On Tuesday, staff and second-graders will vote for the winning animal.

Keeping the candidates out of the lesson plan was part of keeping curriculum age-appropriate, said second-grade team leader Jennifer Venditti.

"We don't discuss Republican or Democrat. We don't discuss Romney or Obama," Venditti said. "We are teaching the election process using characters in a book."

The most important goal, Venditti said, is making sure students understand the qualities that make a good leader, and how national policies affect them.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.