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Engaging Students in the Elections

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Why Teach the Election?

Students under 18 may not be able to vote yet, but everyone is affected by an election’s outcome. And with the 2020 election around the corner and constantly in the news, it’s a chance for teachers to empower students to learn and get involved. Elections can mean the start of a big transition, demonstrating  the power of a group working towards a cause. It’s important for students to see that they can have a role in creating changes in their community and country. Elections also present a great opportunity for students to learn more about current issues being discussed in the media surrounding the election. 

Northern California’s PBS Station KQED has created its Youth Media Challenge: Let's Talk About Election 2020. The challenge gives middle and high school educators across the U.S. access to free, standards aligned programs and resources to help students share and take on issues that matter to them. One of the most empowering features is the ability for students to create and publish audio or video commentaries for a national audience.

I recently incorporated the KQED Youth Media Challenge: Let’s Talk About Election 2020 into my curriculum to model what taking action on an issue looks like and how this can be the first step towards change. Through the Challenge, students can engage on issues that matter to them -- from gun control and mental health awareness to student debt and climate change -- and help them learn what it means to be a responsible citizen and give back to their communities. 

Media Making in the Classroom

To get the students started with the Challenge, I modified the KQED Teach course on how to create a media commentary so that students could work through each module on their own. Students formed groups based around issues they cared about. [See my sample student assignment sequence in the educator toolkit.]

Students were engaged and enjoyed participating in the challenge. Allowing students to choose groups and issues important to them helped add to the project success. With any large project, it can be difficult to stay motivated but students were excited to watch the final videos made by classmates. Students also enjoyed working in groups and learning more about important issues in the upcoming election. 

Sharing Student Work

Students can share their media in the Let's Talk About Election 2020 showcase on KQED Learn. Students can also share their commentaries at an end of year showcase designed to celebrate the program and display student work from the school year. Personally, I plan to post student videos on our school’s Twitter and Facebook page as well as our website. 

Getting Started

As with any successful project, start with getting buy in. You can help school leaders understand the value of the program by showing how it fits into programs already in place at your school such as digital citizenship, media literacy and civic engagement. I was able to tie the Challenge into an annual school event focused on community service. The Challenge is also aligned to standards, which was helpful in gaining support for the program. 

When planning, be thoughtful about establishing a timeline and give yourself ample time around researching and scripting. My students needed more support than I originally planned when it came to writing persuasive scripts.

It’s all about how you engage students. Start with a strong hook to capture student attention and show the importance of sharing your voice on issues that are important to you. Make it personal. FAQs are available to help teachers learn more about getting started, submitting commentaries, and more details about the challenge.

Why Participate in the KQED Youth Media Challenge?

Teachers could get involved in the election challenge because of the many opportunities it provides for students to engage with their community, school, issues of the day and each other. Student media can be privately uploaded and academic discussions can take place on the KQED Learn platform. As a teacher, using KQED Learn can provide structure for discussing important topics and connecting with other schools. I believe students need a way to feel empowered and share their voice; the election challenge is a perfect opportunity for meaningful, personal expression.

The Let's Talk About Election 2020 youth media challenge is co-hosted by KQED, National Writing Project and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs. Educators can explore the showcase and learn more here.

​Samantha McMillan STEM Teacher

Samantha McMillan is a STEM teacher at AdVENTURE, a STEM program in the Oak Grove School District in San Jose, California. She currently teaches social studies and engineering in grades five through eight. Her experience includes the UC Berkeley/SCCOE Integrated Action Civics Teacher Research Group,  IDEO/Teacher’s Guild Design Thinking Teacher Fellowship (2017/2018), IREX/Teachers for Global Classrooms (2016/2017) and SCCOE/TI STEM Teacher of the Year (2017).

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