Campaign ads and voter disenfranchisement: middle schoolers take on the 2016 Presidential Election

There are loads of lessons and projects on elections out there – but how do you run a week-long unit on this presidential election? How do you prevent your classroom from devolving into the chaos that this election warrants? That was the question we spent hours trying to answer – how do you strip away the virulent attitudes and meaningless conversations and instead impart some true academic value? The answer proved surprisingly simple – ignore the politics. Don’t mention the candidates. Abstract away what makes the 2016 Presidential Election the 2016 Presidential Election; instead, tackle topics that go beyond the battles playing out on television every night.

For our Election Week, students across all grades looked at two aspects of elections: campaign ads and voter disenfranchisement. On Monday and Tuesday, we built upon an excellent lesson from the Museum of the Moving Image around historic campaign ads. After a warmup in which students brainstormed a commercial for a new flavor of Cheetos, students were introduced to a rubric with which to evaluate campaign ads. They learned how to decompose ads into their emotion, their persuasiveness and their cinematic style. Their favorite was a 2004 ad featuring Secretary of State Kerry on a surfboard:

Students also looked at campaign posters – specifically, comparing and contrasting a President Taft ad from 1908 with a structurally similar President Obama ad from 2008.

With their newfound campaign ad knowledge, students spent Tuesday storyboarding their own ads for fictional candidates. They worked off of the same rubric, paying close attention to their ads’ emotion, persuasion and cinematic style.

As we shifted to voters’ rights, students interviewed family members and neighbors about their experiences voting over the years. Students shared stories about their interview subjects fulfilling their civic duty, standing in line for hours because they knew that not voting meant they’ve given up their voice in the government, and being incredibly proud the first time they were legally able to complete a ballot.

Building on a lesson plan from PBS, we then analyzed a handful of clips from Election Day, a 2004 documentary that showed the differences in polling locations across the country. Students noticed some locations seemed chaotic and had hours-long lines, while others were clearly overstaffed. After a few minutes of carefully dancing around the subject, most classes had at least one student brave enough to openly acknowledge what was being demonstrated – the primary difference between the people trying to vote at these polling locations was race.

This led into a lesson on the history of race and voting in this country, from the 15th amendment, poll taxes and literacy tests through the 2013 Supreme Court overturning a key component of the Voting Rights Act and current Voter ID laws. Students struggled to get more than a couple questions right on real-life literacy tests from Alabama and Missouri, and were rightfully confused and concerned about the true motivations behind requiring photo IDs in states with a history of voter discrimination.


On Friday, students created posters encouraging school staff and adults in their neighborhoods to vote. Some incorporated what they had learned throughout the week about voting rights – some instead leaned on more persuasive techniques.


Most importantly, we made it through a week of lessons without once debating the merits and foibles of the current presidential candidates. While most of our students won’t be old enough to vote even in 2020, we’ve planted some important ideas in their minds – their voices count, and they will one day have a right to exercise them.


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