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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Electoral Politics Electoral Politics — Lesson Plan

The Lesson Plan section contains everything you will need to fully understand the featured lesson. It has the following sections:

  • Context presents background information on the teacher, the school, and the course in which the lesson was taught;
  • Lesson-Specific Standards identifies the national standards from the Center for Civic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies that correlate to the featured lesson;
  • Teaching the Lesson provides an activity-by-activity description of how the lesson was organized;
  • Assessment includes both the lesson assessment tools and the rubrics associated with them;
  • Lesson Materials contains any printed information or worksheets distributed to students as part of the lesson; and
  • Resources are additional items and/or articles that may further help you adopt these strategies in your own classroom.


Jose E. Velazquez teaches in the social studies department at University High School of the Humanities in Newark, New Jersey. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Harlem in New York City, Jose Velazquez has taught in the Newark Public Schools since 1987. Since 1997, he has taught United States History, African-American Studies, Latino Studies, Sociology, and Law in Action at University High School. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Columbia University in New York, and has completed certification programs in bilingual education at Kern College, master teaching at the Princeton Center for Leadership Training, and critical thinking at Montclair State University, all in New Jersey. Jose Velazquez also has been a cab driver, journalist, student organizer, actor, and neighborhood youth counselor.

University High School of the Humanities is a small academic community, offering a strong curriculum in the humanities and the sciences. It was founded in 1969 as School Within A School (SWAS) to provide college preparatory classes to Newark students. In 1977—when it became a school rather than a program—it changed its name to University High School to indicate both its purpose and proximity to major universities. Students face a battery of standardized tests and must submit recommendations, including one from their elementary school guidance counselor. This admissions process has produced a student body composed of young people who have demonstrated academic motivation, intellectual curiosity, and high achievement during their elementary school years. The humanities focus of the school stresses life-long learning. Teachers hope that students will return to the community after college and make a political, social, and cultural impact on the area.

The program features seniors in Jose Velazquez’s Law in Action course. The lesson culminates a 12-week unit developed by the national Student Voices Project, which took place in all high schools in Newark, New Jersey, during the spring 2002 semester, and culminated in the 2002 Newark mayoral election. Student Voices encourages the civic engagement of young people by bringing the study of a local political campaign into the classroom. Participating teachers typically devote one class period per week to the project. Classes meet daily for 42 minutes.

Student Voices is an initiative of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, with funding from the Annenberg Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Student Voices projects have been implemented in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Detroit, New York, Tulsa, and Seattle, in addition to Newark.

Lesson-Specific Standards

This lesson addresses the national standards listed below.

From the Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government (1994):

Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions:

  • on issues in which fundamental values and principles may be in conflict.
  • about issues concerning the disparities between American ideals and realities.
  • about the role of public opinion in American politics.
  • on the influence of the media on American political life.
  • about the roles of political parties, campaigns, and elections in American politics.
  • about the formation and implementation of public policy.
  • on the importance to American constitutional democracy of dispositions that facilitate thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs.
  • on the relationship between politics and the attainment of individual and public goals.
  • about the means that citizens should use to monitor and influence the formation and implementation of public policy.
  • about the functions of leadership in an American constitutional democracy.

Students should be able to evaluate the significance of campaigns and elections in the American political system.

Students should be able to explain the importance of knowledge to competent and responsive participation in American democracy.

From the National Council for the Social Studies’s Expectations of Excellence: Curriulum Standards for Social Studies (1994):

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of:

  • how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
  • ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Teaching the Lesson: Overview, Goals, and Planning

The lesson culminates a 12-week unit developed by the national Student Voices Project to engage students in the civic life of their community. It was videotaped just prior to the 2002 mayoral election in Newark, New Jersey. Students divide into small groups to brainstorm and research specific community issues, prioritize the issues studied on the basis of what they have learned, present their findings to the class both orally and through a visual presentation, develop a whole-class consensus on a Student Voices Agenda of issues they think the next mayor should address, and study the candidates’ positions on the issues they have chosen to track.

The objective of the lesson is twofold: to get young people involved in civics, politics, and democratic participation in government and to put together a Student Voices agenda for the 2002 City of Newark mayoral campaign. This process can be applied to any local campaign.

Jose Velazquez, who is known for introducing new material in a dramatic way, began this unit by dubbing the 2002 Newark mayoral campaign “The Big Rumble.” A newspaper article that profiled the major candidates for mayor helped make his point by delineating the candidates’ opposing points of view on various issues. Students made an initial choice of which candidate they supported based on their knowledge at the beginning of the unit. These choices will be compared to their selection at the end.

Prior to the lesson seen in the program, the students identified six primary issues that affect young people in the city of Newark–education, housing and neighborhoods, recreational needs, employment, crime and juvenile justice, and discrimination–and selected the issue that most interested them personally. Next, they divided into issue-specific focus groups and brainstormed specific problems in each area. This activity was followed by some initial research, including investigations on Web sites and surveys of other students and community members to test their assumptions, obtain additional input, and identify priorities. The lesson shown in the program culminates this work.


Activity 1: Groups Finalize Research Findings

The objective of this part of the lesson is to identify and prioritize key issues of concern to youth. Begin by introducing and summarizing the expectations for the class that day. Charge each focus group with the task of preparing a written summary and a visual organizer that reports on its research.
Provide time for each focus group to meet, review their research findings to date, conduct any additional research they feel is needed, and prepare a 10-minute presentation. Each group also is to prioritize their concerns and select two issues to recommend for the class Student Voices Agenda.
Work not finished in class can be assigned as homework.


Activity 2: Groups Report on Research Findings

Give each group 10 minutes to present and discuss its research, including the identification of two key issues they believe the new mayor must address. Review the rubric (see the Assessment section below) that will be used to assess students’ work on this part of the lesson.


Activity 3: Finalize Student Voices Agenda

The objective of this activity is to reach a consensus on the Youth Issues Agenda and prepare the class for participation in the meeting with the mayoral candidates. Prior to class, create a Draft Student Issues Agenda by combining the two priority issues of each focus group into a single document for review. Post this Agenda or distribute copies of it to the class.

Begin by providing feedback on the previous activity’s presentations and reviewing the draft of the Youth Issues Agenda. Through class discussion, students should revise the draft as necessary to ensure that it represents them. Lead a discussion to develop consensus on the specific items that will comprise the Student Voices Agenda for this class (see Building Consensus).

For homework, students should develop questions that they would like to ask the candidates and practice asking them.


Activity 4: Represent the Candidates

With the start of this activity, the focus of students’ research will shift from studying the issues to studying the candidates and their positions on the issues. This research can be conducted either individually or in cooperative learning groups. Select specific students to represent each of the candidates (they can be supporters; they do not have to actually “play” the candidate). The rest of the class will ask questions of the candidates, using the ideas they prepared for homework the previous evening. At the end of this activity, which concludes the formal part of the lesson, students should reflect on whether their choice of candidate has changed and discuss their reasoning. These reflections may be required as a brief essay or just discussed in class.


Student Voices Forum

In the case of the Newark Student Voices Project, which is a citywide project, each high school was permitted to select two students to ask questions of the actual candidates for mayor. Groups of students from across the city met with each candidate separately. The exact format of the forum typically would differ from city to city and be determined in consultation with the campaigns.


Scheduling and Adaptations


The ideal timing for this lesson is a block schedule with a double period of 90 or 100 minutes. In a traditional 45-minute period, you would probably need an entire week, with very specific goals for each day, e.g., two days of research, one day to put together the visual organizers and prepare for the presentation, one day for the presentations themselves, and another day to develop consensus on the Student Issues Agenda.

Because this is a senior class, most of the students are at or near voting age, which provides a built-in motivation. To use the lesson with younger students, you might begin with a project in which students get to know their community and then connect what they learn to local government.

The lesson naturally adapts to students with different ability levels and different learning styles, although teachers need to be aware of what the individual strengths of students actually are. Depending on their skills and learning styles, different students can concentrate on creating visuals, conducting Web research, writing, constructing a survey, and so forth.


Jose Velazquez uses a generic cooperative learning project rubric that rates five areas: organization, content accuracy, research, creativity, and presentation mechanics. The four-point scale ranges from “amateurish” to “acceptable” to “admirable” to “exceptional.” Students are familiar with the rubric because it is used throughout the school, sometimes with modifications for a particular situation.

After distributing the rubric to the students, discuss how an exceptional presentation would compare to an amateurish presentation to ensure that students understand the terms and the expectations. Use the rubric to assess each student’s contributions at the time the presentations are made. Following the presentations, have the class conduct a collective assessment in which the students process how they feel they did.

Lesson Materials

The primary materials needed for this unit will be found locally. They include written materials prepared by the campaigns, stories about the candidates in the press, candidates’ appearances at community sites, and so forth. It will be helpful for students to have some basic information about the governance structure in your community and about the specific responsibilities of the various officials. Visit to learn the types of information that were available to the students and teachers in the Newark project and determine if similar resources are available on the Web or in print in your local community.


Below you will find additional resources pertaining to this lesson.

A Chronology of the Growth of Suffrage in the United States (PDF)

Examples of Research Surveys Developed by Students at University High School, Newark, N.J. (PDF)

Student Issues Agenda Developed by Students at University High School, Newark, N.J. (PDF)

Selection of Questions for Mayoral Candidates Developed by Students at University High School, Newark, N.J. (PDF)

Below you will find additional resources pertaining to this lesson.

Hahn, Carole L. “Student Views of Democracy: The Good News and Bad News,” Social Education. Vol. 65, No. 7, November-December 2001, pp.456-60.

Center for Civic Education


Public Broadcasting Service Teachersource Click on “High School” and then on “Voting and Campaigns” for additional lesson plans. Also, Click “Civics and Government” under Archived Recommendations.

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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-679-0