Presidential Debates: Teachable Moments to Spark Interest in Elections

BY Leah Clapman  October 2, 2012 at 11:05 AM EDT

What can middle, high school and college students learn from watching the upcoming presidential debates?

Not only can these prime-time events be suspenseful and exciting, but they provide the opportunity to see the candidates side by side on stage, interacting in real time without slick ads or pithy campaign messages. To take advantage of this teachable moment, the PBS NewsHour has worked with educators around the country to develop a set of learning tools to spark interest in the democratic process.

Using NewsHour Extra’s handouts, students can keep track of the issues and answers, analyze the candidate responses and understand the ways media interpretations of the events can shape public opinion after the fact. At the free NewsHour’s iTunesU course, there are worksheets and the first chapter of a new iBook that includes video interviews with almost all the candidates that have participated in the debate since 1976, as well as behind-the-scenes reflections from moderators Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and Margaret Warner.

There are also insights from the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates on how the formats have evolved since the 1970s, and how this year’s events have been shaped by lessons from the past.

“Presidential debates are sacred moments in the political process” says Syd Golston, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies and grant director for the Teaching American History project for the Phoenix Union High School District.

“Watching the debates isn’t just an assignment that a teacher gives a student; it’s a critical part of the transition that happens very quickly into citizenship,” Golston continues. “This is the one time we get to see politicians at the highest level engage in civil discourse. Throughout campaigns we see manipulative uses of logic, we see emotions appealed to much more than reason. This is the one time we can see a really good examination of the issues and watch the candidates interact civilly, in a thoughtful and polite manner. Because immediately after the election they’ll go right back to the partisan bickering we’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to.”

NewsHour Extra also has lesson plans on the math of the electoral college, polling, social media and the 2012 Election Data Map Center.

And the ongoing “Listen to Me” project asks Americans of all ages to submit videos answering four key questions about what matters most in this year’s election.