Thursday, December 12, 2013

Electoral College Simulation

Our next topic after exploring the Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention was Washington's presidency. Our textbook briefly describes how Washington was chosen by the Electoral College, but goes into little detail about what this was. I decided that we needed to dig deeper into this question and not only explore how the Electoral College functions today, but how it was originally designed. In the first few elections in American history, the president was not determined by a popular vote, but exclusively by the Electoral College.

First, we discussed the role of the electors as they were originally described. Because the American population at the time was often rural and far-flung and long distance communication was slow to say the least, campaigning was exceedingly difficult. Many Framers also didn't have much faith in the ability of the general populace to chose a worthy candidate for various reasons. To gather information about this particular era of the Electoral College, we watched videos and read from various sources, including The United States Constitution: A Round Table Comic by Nadja Baer. The graphic novel offers a clear, concise and visually-supported version of the events of the Constitutional Convention. 

Later, we discussed the election of 1800 and how several key flaws were discovered in the electoral system. Finally, we compared the way the college functions today to the original design on a Venn diagram after watching the following video showing the official process. 

To model the electoral process as it is conducted today, we created a mock election in which the entire middle school would participate. We created two mock candidates who represented Federalist and Democratic-Republican agendas. We chose these two political parties because of their significance during the period of history we were studying, but the lesson could easily be adapted to any two or more political parties. 

Several of the classes in the middle school were not studying this subject, so our ballots clearly explained the platforms of each candidate. Each homeroom was allowed to vote for a candidate and in our simulation, each homeroom would count as a state with a different number of electoral votes based on population. Before handing out the ballots to each homeroom, we created a fact sheet (shown below) with the electoral votes for each homeroom and a map to color in red and blue as the votes are tallied. The map is intended to look like our middle school hallway and resemble the United States maps that are color-coded during election coverage

After the election, I showed a video of typical news coverage from YouTube of the 2008 election of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I showed and explained how the media outlets use a complex algorithm of votes counted, exit polls, historical context and other data to project a winner for each state. Sometimes the winners are called in short order while others may continue to be counted late into the evening or even the following weeks.

Similar to the news reporting on the election, teams of students were allowed to count the votes for each "state," then "call" a state for a particular candidate when the votes were tallied. As the states were called, we kept a school map, like the one shown above, of the hallway and shaded in the homerooms either red or blue depending on the victorious candidate. Finally, when the "magic number" of electoral votes had been assigned to a candidate, we called the election. Later on, each student acted as an elector for a particular state and signed off on a certificate like the ones shown in the electoral college video above.

After our rallies complete with "state" paddles and signing the certificates, I felt that students had a much deeper understanding of how the modern Electoral College system operates and how it has changed over time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Weakest Link

In discussing the forming of this new nation, the United States, I wanted students to understand why the Articles of Confederation failed, but also why the features that made it weak were built in. I wanted them to see the fears of the Framers about their experiences with British government replaced with new laws, limitations and procedures in the Articles. Finally, I wanted them to analyze what they felt was the weakest part of the plan, or the weakest link.

In order to accomplish the bold, challenging concept, we created a chain of weaknesses in the Articles that led to everything from excessively high state taxes to massive inflation. Chains are easy to create both by hand and on the computer. I wrote about using chains to demonstrate metaphors in a novel here.

In Microsoft Word, you can simply insert a one-column table with as many rows as links. By choosing a larger font or inserting spaces, the rows can be larger and allow for typing or handwriting. These rows can later be cut into strips, then curled and taped into the chains. My students used a template like the one below then typed in the weaknesses.

Students were required to choose five weaknesses based on our in-class discussion. Once the template was complete, we printed them and created chains. Students then had to choose one of the weaknesses that they felt was the most damaging or was the greatest influence on the eventual demise of the Articles. They wrote paragraphs about the so-called "weakest link."

One student had the idea of posting the paragraphs onto images of locks. One of our sources described how some of the features of the Articles "gridlocked" the government, rendering it powerless to levy taxes, regulate trade, or create a standard currency. Using the lock template, we attached the cut-out lock image to the link representing the student's selected "weakest link."

Understanding why an entire system of government failed can be daunting, but I found that this helped to break down the Articles into manageable chunks, then allowed students to analyze those weaknesses.