traci's lists of ten

Traci's 29th List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Write about Election Time, Part I

Posted to WPA-L, Tech-Talk, AACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TechRhet on 10/15/00.

As November gets closer, we're seeing more and more campaigning, debating, and sloganeering. Seemed like time for some assignments that focus on the what I'd call election issues. Some ask students to think critically about the ways that the election events happen. Others give them the chance to think about a specific issue or concern raised by one of the candidates or related to a referendum on the ballot.

The assignments are written generally, referring to candidates and referendums. You might focus them specifically, by shaping the references so that students are asked to explore a specific political race (e.g., the US Presidential race) or specific referendum on the local ballot.

  1. [LAB REPORT] Pretend that the race for a particular governmental office or the referendum on an specific initiative is actually an experiment that you are observing (or participating in). Write a lab report that explains what happened and explains your findings. Your report will probably have five sections: (1) Introduction, (2) Procedures, (3) Results, (4) Discussion, and (5) Conclusion.

    You'll need to include the following information:
    • INTRODUCTION: What data and equipment was used? Include definitions of key terms and anything else necessary in order to understand exactly what happened.
    • PROCEDURES: Exactly what happened? Explain the steps that took place from beginning to end.
    • RESULTS: What was the outcome of the steps that were taken? What was the result?
    • DISCUSSION: Interpret your observations and results. Give explanations for and implications of what you observed. Address any interesting questions you may have had as you were observing the events. Can you make any generalizations? Why or why not?
    • CONCLUSION. Summarize your results, the main points of your discussion, and how they relate to the stated purpose of the lab.
    [NOTE: If you're working with students who are writing labs as a matter of course for a biology class, a chemistry class, or a similar course, fit the outline of the lab you ask them to write to the outline that they use in their other class. They'll be used to the format already, and you'll have an interesting time in talking about how they've fit the events of the election issue they're writing about to the lab report format.

    Additionally, you might focus students' attention more specifically, asking them to consider a single debate rather than the entire election, for instance.]

  2. [DESIGN ANALYSIS] Gather details on the political signs that you see posted in various front yards, supporting the various candidates and issues on the ballot. How big are the signs? Are they all the same shape and size? Are there any local zoning issues that affect their sizes? What colors do they use? What sorts of designs do they use (stars? lines? circles? etc.) What text is on the signs? What size are the words? Are some words in larger fonts than others? If so, which ones? What language is the text in? What differences are there between signs for national, state, and local elections? Write a paper that explains what you've found. Explain the principles that seem to guide the design of the signs that you're evaluated.

    1. You could adapt this assignment so that you look at bumper stickers, bulletin boards, lapel buttons, or brief pamphlets. It's likely to be easier for students to focus on something with less text rather than more, so that you can focus their attention on design issues instead of on the text itself.

    2. Rather than exploring political signs for a public election, you might focus students' attention on posters for a school election, either for class officers, homecoming court, student government, and so on. Be careful to avoid situations where students criticize the sign-makers or candidates involved. You might use signs that are a few years old, so that the students involved are no longer at your school. Or you might collect signs and exchange them with a teacher at another school. If you try the latter, be sure to collect some basic information about the school — such as the number of students, the school's geographic location, and the school name, colors, and mascot, and so forth. Such issues are likely to affect the designs (esp., for instance, colors) but your students would be unlikely to know the connection.

    3. Focus students on a historical analysis. Have students look at signs, buttons, or bumper stickers used for 5 or 10 different elections. Narrow the analysis to a specific campaign (e.g., presidential election, state senator) to help eliminate differences that might be based on the offices rather than changes over time.

    4. Rather than writing an analytical paper, have students write guidelines for designing political signs. They'll still have to do the analysis and draw the conclusions, but the final product could be a numbered list of design recommendations. You might find this alternative especially appropriate if you have students considering posters from their own school elections — and you can give the assignment more of a real-world purpose if they complete their guidelines before campaigning begins for their own classes. That way, they can apply the principles that they define when designing their own signs.]

  3. [LANGUAGE] Analyze the language that politicians and others use to discuss a political issue. Look at the particular words that are used to name the issue, the verbs that are used in association with it, and the descriptive adjectives and adverbs that are chosen. Are there specific themes or metaphors that are typically used? What kind of appeals are employed — emotional? logical? ethical? Are technical terms used? Is the language objective? flowery? plain? Write a paper that explains how the use of language influences the discussion. Focus on the ways that the language that is used helps make the stance on the issue clear. Remember that you're not looking at the issue itself, but at the words that are used to talk about the issue!

    [TEACHING TIP: You might give students a specific list of issues to explore (or create a list of taboo topics) to ensure that students don't work on a topic that could cause difficulty. In particular, you'll probably want to rule out discussion of the pro-choice/pro-life language surrounding the abortion issue. Choices that might work are drug laws, racial profiling, gun control, prescription drug programs, and standardized testing. You know your students and community better than anyone — be sure that you choose issues that will be acceptable to your administration, parents, and others in the community.]

  4. [SPORTS REPORT] Take notes on a political debate or another event that you see on television or elsewhere. Note the actions that take place — who does what? Once you've gathered your notes, write a report that describes the events in the style of a sports report. Take the language and sentence style of a play-by-play announcer or of a sports writer, and write the article that will appear on the sports page the morning after the event. A tip: To make the most sense, choose a specific sport and stick with it through your entire piece. It wouldn't make sense to talk about a blitz and free throws in the same paper.

    [TEACHING TIP: Be sure to allow options if you use this assignment. You'll likely have students who do not know enough about sporting events to fulfill this assignment effectively. In addition to a sports report, you might allow students to describe the events as if they were gossip columnists, entertainment columnists (e.g., working in the style of an article for Entertainment Tonight), an in-depth weather story (similar to coverage of a heat wave or flash flood) or Wall Street Reporters. You could allow students to choose any kind of newspaper column OTHER THAN the political/news page where the report would typically appear.]

  5. [SATIRE] Satirize an ad or statement/press release by writing a solution to an issue that the candidate discusses, using Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" as your model. Pay attention to the relationship between the real facts you know about the issue and the satirical details that you include in your paper. What makes a satire good is its relationship to the real world.

    [TEACHING TIP: See assignment #3 above for details on providing guidelines for the issues that students might examine. Provide students with whatever guidelines seem important to ensure that they choose to examine issues that will be appropriate.]

  6. [LETTER TO CANDIDATE] Write a letter to a political candidate or official. In your letter, respond to an issue, share your beliefs/feelings, or state your position. The point of your letter is to show support for a position that the candidate or official has taken, to urge the candidate or official to take a particular stance, or to explain that you disagree with the position that the candidate or official has taken. Be sure that your letter includes details that support your position — go beyond simply saying that you agree or disagree to providing specific reasons for the position that you take.

    [TEACHING TIP: Again, see assignment #3 above for details on providing guidelines for the issues that students might examine.]

  7. [NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION] Analyze the nonverbal communication that a politician uses. What gestures and mannerisms does the politician use? How is the politician dressed? What does the politician's body language tell you about the issues and positions being discussed? What facial gestures does the politician make? Are there sounds that the politician makes that seem more like nonverbal communication than words? Write a paper that explains your observations and suggests how the politician's nonverbal communication affects the messages being conveyed.

    [TEACHING TIP: You might help students focus by having them look at a particular event, say a debate, rather than attempting to catalogue all of a candidate's behaviors.]

  8. [ADVERTISING V. PROPAGANDA] Examine political advertisements on television, in newspapers and magazines, and in pamphlets or other materials that you receive. Look at the ways that they present and discuss the issues. Use your observations to write a position/definition paper that explains the difference between a political advertisement and propaganda. Your paper should explain what an advertisement is and when it crosses over into the area of propaganda. Use specific examples to support your definition.

  9. [DEFINING A POINT OF VIEW] Gather a collection of ads, pamphlets, press releases, and debate statements that all focus on a specific issue. You may need to find parts of longer pieces to complete your research (for instance, the debate answer on an issue could be included, but you wouldn't use the entire debate transcript). Put the collection in chronological order — from the first publication or announcement to the most recent publication or announcement. Examine how the issue addressed in the pieces develops from the first mention to the current stance. How does the candidate's point of view become defined? Are there changes from the first statement to the most recent? Does the candidate move from general and abstract to more specific statements? How does the context of the statement affect the kind of statement? Write a paper that explains how the candidate states and supports a position — and how that position develops over time.

    [TEACHING TIP: Again, see assignment #3 above for details on providing guidelines for the issues that students might examine.]

  10. [INSTRUCTIONS] Write a set of directions that explains how to participate in a particular event in the process of running for office. You might outline how to make a statement, participate in a debate, give a speech, or answer a question about a specific issue. Focus your instructions as much as necessary. If there's a difference in commenting in a debate on foreign policy from commenting on health insurance, be sure that your instructions account for such differences. Your paper should outline the steps that someone would follow to accomplish the task that you're writing about — what happens first, what happens next, and so on. Someone else should be able to follow your instructions to accomplish the same task.

    [ALTERNATIVE: Instead of writing serious instructions, ask students to write parody instructions.]

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on November 24, 2000.