With the 2020 presidential election just four days away, English and social studies teachers probably have only one more chance to take advantage of the learning opportunities it affords before their students start thinking of it as history.
Today I’m going to give ELA and SS teachers a formal writing prompt to assign before the election to teens grades 11 and 12 and to adult students.
(If you missed last week’s blog post, it suggested having teens or adults in students in English classes and appropriate social studies classes attempt to outline each candidate’s position on one of the questions asked in the second 2020 presidential debate.)
Here’s how to prepare students
First, assign students to read or listen to comments by two prominent academics who are concerned about how of people’s ability to discuss politics civilly has almost disappeared in America. The two are Danielle Allen, an author and the director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and Pete Peterson, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, who writes and speaks about public engagement. They were interviewed on PBS NewsHour by Jeffrey Brown on Oct. 1, 2020. The NewsHour provides both a transcript and an audio tape of the interview. Here are shortlinks you can give students:
Read or listen to these a short interview with two scholars about what they think are the reasons Americans can no longer discuss political issues without being rude or nasty to those with whom they disagree. As you read/listen keep alert to what the two commentators identify as the reasons for the breakdown of civil discourse. Here are links to the written transcript and the audio recording of the Oct. 1, 2020 interview.
In an informative/expository text discuss what you think is the single most important cause of the breakdown in political civility. Please confine your analysis to no more than 750 words. Deadline for submission is [time, date].
Here are additional directions:
Write your analysis in the third person. Support each topic sentence with summaries or quotations from different sources. You may use your personal experience or observation only as one supporting point of one of your three body paragraphs.
Here’s a pattern students can use to plan their responses:
Thesis: X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility.
X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 1].
X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 2].
X is the single most important factor in the breakdown of political civility because [reason 3].
A hint that might help uncover related ideas
Find out when whatever you think is the most important factor in the breakdown of civility began to be talked about in books and in the news media. If you can find the names of a couple people who wrote about that subject, you may be able to get related ideas from Wikipedia. Knowing the approximate time the factor you’ve identified became a topic for public discussion might also suggest people you know that you could interview about whether/how that factor affected them.
I didn’t see last night’s debate between President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, but when I scanned this morning’s headlines, I got an idea for a writing activity that might be useful in both English and/or social studies classes.
Here’s what I propose: Outline the arguments
Have teens and adult students analyze both candidates’ responses to one of the questions moderator Kristen Welker posted to the candidates and build a skeleton outline™ for each candidate’s response. The skeletons could follow this pattern:
Working thesis: I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art.
1. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.
2. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.
3. I know Trump/Biden has a plan to protect Americans who could lose their health insurance if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Art because he said [ this] in the presidential debate 2020-10-22.
Here’s how to set up the activity
Give teens and adult students one (or a choice of no more than three) sets of moderator Kristen Welker’s questions to the candidates in the October 23, 2020 debate.
Tell students to copy (Ctrl C) the entire section of the transcript between the starting comment in that thread and the last one. (The last one will be the paragraph above the next topic.)
Tell students to paste the material they copied into a Word document or other writing program file, so they can manipulate the text. Because they’re going to chop up the text, they might want to make two copies right away so that have a full copy in addition to the manipulated copy.
Have students examine the candidates’ responses to the question (including to follow-up questions from the moderator and unsolicited comments offered by the candidates.) To make that task easier, tell students they can delete from the Word document they created anything a candidate says that doesn’t seem to respond to the question the moderator asked them.
From their analysis of what’s left—the material that seems to respond to the question—have students write two skeleton outlines, each one summarizing one candidate’s position on that topic.
Debate topics and their transcript locations
In each of the debate topics below, I’ve enclosed a term within less than < and greater than > signs that can be used to search the transcript for the start of that topic.
Leadership in the Chronavirus epidemic (08:27)
Welker to Trump: (08:27) How would you lead the country during this next <stage of the coronavirus crisis>?
Welker to Biden: (11:06) How would you lead the country out of this [Coronavirus] crisis?
Welker to Trump: (17:03) “If the Supreme Court does overturn [the Affordable Healthcare Act], there’s 20 million Americans could lose their health insurance almost overnight. So what would you do if those people have their <health insurance taken away>?”
Welker to Biden: (19:43) “Your healthcare plan calls for <building on Obamacare>. So my question is, what is your plan if the law is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?”
Minimum wage (30:10)
Welker to Biden: (30:10) “Mr. Vice President, we are talking a lot about <struggling small businesses> and business owners these days. Do you think this is the right time to ask them to raise the minimum wage? You of course support a $15 federal minimum wage.”
Welker to Trump: (31:39 and 31:46) “You said recently you would consider raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.” (implied question: Is this the right time to seek a raise in the federal minimum wage.)
Welker to Trump (32:37): “Mr. President, your administration <separated children> from their parents at the border, at least 4,000 kids. You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?”
Welker to Biden: (35:05) “The Obama Administration did fail to deliver immigration reform, which had been a key promise during the administration. It also presided over record deportations, as well as, family detentions at the border before changing course. So why should voters trust you with an immigration overhaul now?”
Race in America (38:37)
Welker to Biden: (38:37) I want to talk about the way <Black and Brown Americans> experience race in this country. Part of that experience is something called the talk. It happens regardless of class and income, parents who feel they have no choice, but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin. Mr. Vice President, in the next two minutes, I want you to speak directly to these families. Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?
Welker to Trump: I would like you to speak directly to these families, do you understand why these parents fear for their children?”
Election security (29:19)
Welker to Biden (29:19) “…<both Russia and Iran> are working to influence this election….What would you do to put an end to this threat?
Welker to Trump (31:45) “For two elections in a row now, there has been substantial interference from foreign adversaries. What would you do in your next term to put an end to this?
Climate change (12:41)
Welker to Trump: (12:41) For each of you, how would you <both combat climate change> and support job growth at the same time?
Welker to Biden (14:44) Vice President Biden, two minutes to you uninterrupted.
Inauguration Day message (24:30)
Welker to President Trump: Imagine <this is your inauguration> day. What will you say in your address, to Americans who did not vote for you? NOTE: The next three text blocks in the transcript (24:47, 25:01, and 25:28) are attributed to Joe Biden, but they are President Trump’s responses.
Welker to Biden: (25:49) “What will you say during your inaugural address to Americans who did not vote for you?”
Why this activity is worth doing
Like many of my ideas, this might not work, but I think it might be worth trying. In an English class, it would test students’ ability to distinguish between information that supports a thesis and that which is related but doesn’t actually support the thesis. In social studies, the completed English class assignment might prompt a discussion about political discourse: Does what politicians say make sense? Does it matter to voters if they don’t make sense?