Skip to main content Skip to main content

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Electoral Politics Electoral Politics — Other Lessons

  • Voting Isn’t Enough
  • Voting Is Essential


Voting Isn't Enough

Citizenship education must go beyond the “hows and whys” of voting to explore leadership, conflicts over power, and the issues at stake in elections. Instructional activities to promote enduring democratic behaviors through broad voter education are presented. G. Dale Greenawald is an educational consultant who has published extensively in the field of social studies education, and recently served on the faculty of the University of Northern Colorado.

Voting Isn’t Enough
by G. Dale Greenawald

“Stop that teenager before he votes!” (Rosenberg). This rather unusual plea caught my attention several years ago, since I’m more accustomed to hearing appeals for programs designed to increase voting by young adults. This contrarian perspective argues that Americans should re-examine the use of voting patterns as the ultimate criteria of civic participation. Despite the popular perception of voting as the pinnacle of civic behavior, the author suggests that voting without careful analysis of issues and candidates contributes little, if anything, to democracy. The transparent futility of uninformed voting may, in fact, enhance a sense of alienation and estrangement from the political process.

Voting is a minimalist expression of citizenship, and voter education should promote behaviors beyond merely punching a card and dropping it in a ballot box. Many students can correctly identify residency requirements, use a voting machine, and even explain the importance of voting, but still fail to vote or engage in other basic civic behaviors. Knowledge of the electoral process is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for voting. The desire to vote results in superficial candidate selection when the voter lacks: (1) a commitment to being informed and a dedication to the common welfare, (2) adequate knowledge of candidates and pressing public policy issues, and (3) higher level thinking and problem-solving skills.

A comprehensive voter education program for high school students must attend to three interrelated elements: affects, knowledge, and skills. Some affective elements actually pose barriers to developing effective citizenship. These include negative perceptions of politics, power, and conflict; the personal sense of lacking efficacy; and an atrophied sense of civic responsibility. Helping students to acquire sufficient knowledge of the “hot” public policy issues underlying electoral debate poses another challenge in the age of over-information. Finally, students need to hone their critical-thinking skills to evaluate candidates and analyze public policy issues.

The high visibility surrounding elections provides excellent instructional opportunities to promote behaviors congruent with Barber’s and Parker’s ideals of strong democracy (Barber, Parker). The following instructional activities are designed to promote enduring democratic behaviors through broad voter education. They center on the examination of: (1) politicians vs. leaders, (2) politics, power, and conflict, and (3) identifying and prioritizing the issues in an election campaign. They can also serve as an entry point for use of the Active Citizenship Today (ACT) service-learning curriculum developed by the Close Up Foundation together with the Constitutional Rights Foundation (1995).

Politicians vs. Leaders
The abysmally low level of voting by youthful citizens provides a clue that, for many, non-voting must be perceived as rational behavior (Gans, McPhilimy). National polls consistently indicate that the public holds negative perceptions of politicians and politics. If voters continue to believe that it makes little difference who wins an election, since most politicians are incompetent or unethical, is it little wonder that voter participation has plunged? The pernicious impact of this perception may not only promote non-voting, but also inhibit citizens with political aspirations from tossing their hats in the ring.


Students will be able to:

  • compare and contrast their perceptions of politicians and leaders;
  • analyze the consequences of negative public perceptions of politicians; and
  • develop solutions to the problems caused by negative attitudes toward politics.


Write the word “politicians” on the blackboard or overhead and ask students to list all the words they associate with that term. As students suggest words, ask them to explain why this describes politicians. Do some words “trigger” others? Draw connections between these words to create a semantic web. Then repeat the activity using the term “leaders.”

After students have identified all of the terms they associate with “politicians” and “leaders,” compare the two “schematic maps” How are they similar? Different? Ask students to cluster the terms from both lists into positive and negative attributes. In most instances, the terms linked to politicians will be negative, while those associated with leaders will be positive. Use the following questions to help students explore both causes and consequences of the divergent perceptions of “politicians” and “leaders”:

  1. What is your reaction to the different terms associated with politicians and leaders?
  2. How accurate are these perceptions? How can you measure their accuracy?
  3. How well do these perceptions reflect those of the wider society?
  4. How might these perceptions influence the behavior of someone thinking about voting?
  5. How might these perceptions influence the behavior of someone thinking about running for office?
  6. What causes negative perceptions of politicians and politics?
  7. What might be some consequences of negative attitudes toward politics for a democracy?
  8. Should anything be done to improve the public assessment of politicians?
  9. What would you do to turn a “politician” into a “leader”?

If possible, invite a local political figure to class to offer a viewpoint on being a politician and to respond to students’ ideas about politics. What do students want most to tell this politician? What does this politician want most to tell students as the coming generation of voters?


Politics, Conflict, and Power
Even if students recognize the need for a more favorable attitude toward politics, they may harbor an aversion to the conflicts and the jockeying for power that characterize the political process in the United States. This lesson explores why conflict is inherent, and the quest for power an essential element, in politics.

Students will be able to:

  • explain relationships among politics, conflict, and power;
  • respond constructively to political conflict; and
  • assess how they might acquire and use political power.


  1. Begin discussion of the importance of power in our political system by asking students to describe what power means to them. Record their thoughts on the sources and uses of power. These may be used as hypotheses to be tested, or as a benchmark to examine whether their attitudes change during the lesson. Ask students to monitor the news for several days. Their assignment is to locate “powerful” people, and to bring in newspaper items, pictures, or videotape segments that demonstrate their power. Have students work in small groups to develop a working definition of what constitutes “power” (the ability to influence individuals and/or events). As each group examines the material they have collected, have them note the source of each person’s power, e.g., position, money, knowledge or ideas, skill, popularity or large following, physical strength, weapons, “connections” to powerful people, control of technology or information. Create a class list of sources of power, and have students categorize them. Use Socratic questioning to help students recognize that power is often situational. For example, a pro basketball player has power on the court but not in a cancer research lab, a police officer has power while on duty but not while attending a stock car race. Ask students to think about what sources of power are most important in the realm of politics.
  2. Preface this activity by asking students to identify one thing they would like to change about the world. Prepare a list of the desired changes to distribute as students enter class the next day. Select an item from the list, and ask students whom this proposed change might affect. Would some people gain while others would lose? Identify groups that might favor the proposed change and groups that might oppose it. Repeat this process with several items. Challenge students to find one item on the list that everyone in the world would support. They are likely to find that there are opposing forces for every issue. What do students conclude about the role of conflict in life? How do individuals and societies deal with conflict? Are there more and less productive ways? If time permits, have students read all or part of Federalist 10, and discuss its relationship to power and conflict. Ask students to write a letter or email to the author of Federalist 10 critiquing his ideas in light of the U.S. political system today.
  3. Ask students to re-examine the list they made of desired changes, and consider what is required to put them into effect. Use Socratic questioning to help students recognize that efforts to change or to maintain the status quo both require power to succeed. What does this finding suggest about what students must do if they really wish to see the changes on their list occur? Create small groups to “brainstorm” ways students might acquire power in order to promote change, e.g., learn about an issue, recruit others who favor change, identify and write to key policy makers, distribute information, volunteer with or contribute to an organization or a party working toward this change. Ask each group to select its two best ideas and describe them to the class. Review the sources of power list developed earlier in this lesson. Does it suggest additional ways to empower students to respond to an issue? Finally, ask students to develop criteria for rating the likely effectiveness of their ideas. Use these criteria to assign a rank order to methods by which they might affect the political process.


Identifying and Prioritizing the Issues in an Election
Once students recognize that it is only through power that they can hope to influence the political process, they must decide which issues before the electorate are most important to them. This activity is designed to help students identify and prioritize the salient issues in an election campaign.

Students will be able to:

  1. identify the important issues in an election;
  2. prioritize these issues;
  3. construct a poll for sampling public opinion; and
  4. develop a tracking system for candidate positions on issues.


  1. Identifying the Issues. Draw a large profile of a head with the cranial area divided into 10 to 20 boxes. Label the head Joe/Josephine Voter, and ask students to fill the boxes with the issues in this election campaign. As students volunteer issues, ask them to explain the nature of the issue and why it is important. What are their sources of information about this issue? Do some issues overlap so that they may be considered the same?
  2. Prioritizing the Issues. When all of the issues have been listed, ask each student to rank order them from most to least important. Then have students discuss their criteria for assigning importance to an issue (e.g., affects the most people, has the most costly/destructive consequences, is most urgent because its consequences will be felt first). What conclusions do students draw from learning that they have not all used the same criteria in ranking issues? Ask students to review their own rank orders and make any changes they think necessary after listening to the class discussion. Then divide the class into smaller groups (three to six members) and ask them to construct a group rank order of the issues. Students will have to determine what method to use to arrive at the most representative group ranking. Have each group post its results for the entire class to see. Following discussion, have the entire class assign a rank order to the issues in this election.
  3. Constructing a Poll. Students, whether or not they vote yet, represent a particular age subgroup in the population. Ask whether they think the issues in this campaign would be ranked similarly by other subgroups. Depending upon the information wanted, pollsters sample public opinion in terms of groups based on: age, sex, educational level, income, type of community (urban, suburban, rural), region, race, religion, political affiliation, and other characteristics. Ask students to construct a poll about the major issues in this election to be taken by members of other age groups in their community. A simple poll could ask its subjects to prioritize the issues as students have named them. Students can decide whether to make the poll more open-ended by providing space for respondents to name their own issues. A more complex poll would involve transforming the issues into questions in as unbiased a manner as possible and asking respondents to indicate their positions. Students and members of the other age groups could then take the poll. Questions to consider after polling include:
    • Are there significant differences in the responses of different age groups in this poll?
    • If so, what are they?
    • What factors might account for any differences?
    • How could one find out more about the thinking behind the responses? (e.g., focus group)
    • What are opinion polls for?
    • Who uses them?
    • How are they used?
    • Why is it important that they represent the population accurately?
    • Do opinion polls help democracy? If so, how?
    • Do opinion polls hinder democracy? If so, how?
  4. Developing a Tracking System. Ask the class why it might be important to know what candidates say about the issues in this campaign (1) at different times, (2) in different places, and (3) to different types of audiences. Is there anything else important to know about how a candidate addresses the issues in this campaign? Now divide the class into teams and challenge them to develop a form that enables class members to track what a candidate says about the issues in this campaign. Have the teams share their forms and synthesize their ideas into one class form. Have students use their forms individually to track what the major candidates say about one or more issues in this campaign. A class form using posterboard or shelf paper and prominently displayed in the classroom might also be kept. Students could then assess candidates in terms of such questions as:
    • Has the candidate been consistent over time?
    • Has the candidate been consistent in different places?
    • Has the candidate been consistent with different audiences?
    • If not, what might explain any changes or differences in the candidate’s position on an issue?


Barber, Benjamin. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Constitutional Rights Foundation. “Service Learning in the Social Studies.” Monograph published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation (Chicago, Ill., no date).

Croddy, Marshall (ed.). Active Citizenship Today: Handbook for Middle School Teachers. Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, Calif.: Close Up Foundation and Constitutional Rights Foundation, 1995.

Gans, Curtis. “Socialization and Participation: A Research Agenda for the 21st Century,” Citizenship for the 21st Century, edited by William T. Callahan, Jr. and Ronald Banaszak. Bloomington, Ind.: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.

McPhilmy, Glennys. “The Young Non-Voters.” Daily Camera, April 29,1991: 4A.
Parker, Walter. “Schools as Laboratories of Democracy.” Educating the Democratic Mind, edited by Walter Parker. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Rosenberg, Elliot. “Stop That Teenager Before He Votes.” The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 1988: 30.
Source: Social Education, Volume 60, Number 6, Pages 333-335, October 1996. Copyright National Council for the Social Studies, Oct 1996.

Source: Social Education, Volume 60, Number 6, Pages 333-335, October 1996. Copyright National Council for the Social Studies, October 1996.

Voting Is Essential

Blasing, a social studies instructor at LaCrosse High School, LaCrosse, Kansas, who also serves as a part-time faculty member in the social science department at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, describes a lesson plan to help students formulate their own political opinions in an election campaign through a critical examination of political advertisements, candidate debates, and political cartoons.

Voting Is Essential
by Rick Blasing

“For what avail the plough or sail, Or land, or life, if freedom fail?” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The approaching election provides an opportunity to examine anew the chronic proportions of nonvoting in the United States. Dismal voter turnout has characterized American elections for decades. The percentage of eligible voters has not topped 61 percent since the tumultuous presidential election of 1968. This problem is particularly acute within the younger electorate, especially among those aged 18-20, who won the right to vote with the 26th Amendment in 1971. The U.S. Bureau of the Census indicates that only 38.5 percent of eligible voters age 18-20 cast their ballots in the 1992 election. Less than half of this age group was even registered to vote during that election.

Social studies teachers have a unique opportunity to influence potential young voters by helping students develop an awareness of what is at stake in any given election–local and state as well as national. Students need to know about the historical struggle to extend suffrage, involving sacrifice and prolonged efforts by various groups in turn to win the vote. They need to understand the relevance of voting to their lives, and particularly, the direct relationship between low voter turnout and poor government. They need to realize the consequences of voter apathy, including the possibility that national policy may increasingly be determined by an active, bloc-voting, and, frequently, single-issue electorate.

By facilitating the spread of knowledge, teachers can help students to comprehend why the success of our democratic experiment depends on a system where authority is given to elected officials–our “public servants”–with the consent of all of the governed. The most fundamental right of citizens, the right to vote, should be portrayed as an active, dynamic component in a thriving democracy.

Provoking a Perspective: Helping Students to Create Their Own Political Opinions

To instill in students a sense of importance regarding their own participation in the political process, and to empower them with a feeling of political efficacy that overrides prevailing voter apathy.


To help students formulate their own opinions about the issues in an election campaign through a critical examination of

  • political advertisements,
  • candidate debates, and
  • political cartoons.
  1. Examining Political Advertisements
    Students, individually or in teams, will examine campaign literature distributed by candidates. Students should identify:

    1. important issues addressed by candidates,
    2. important issues ignored by candidates, and
    3. issues mentioned but not qualitatively discussed by candidates.

    This activity could be extended to a critique of political ads on television by assigning teams to cover the evening news (when most ads are run) on different networks over a period of time. In examining political ads, students should identify:

    1. the theme of the ad,
    2. the specific issue–if any–being addressed,
    3. the factual content of the ad, and
    4. the emotional content of the ad.

    TV ads accounted for an average 25 percent of campaign expenditures by candidates for Congress in the 1994 elections. What conclusions do students draw about the value of TV advertising to (1) the candidates, and (2) the electorate?

  2. Examining Candidate Debates
    Students will watch video segments of one of the televised debates between the presidential candidates. It would be useful for students to view the entire debate on television before the classroom discussion. Students could then suggest particular themes or issues in the debate for a detailed critique. Students might also consider the following questions:

    1. What information about candidates may be provided by a debate as opposed to: (1) political ads, (2) TV “sound bites,” and (3) print journalism?
    2. Did the candidates in this debate tend more to “join issue” or to avoid providing clear statements of their policy positions? Give examples.
    3. Do debates reveal important qualities of leadership? If so, what? Are there other qualities of leadership that debates may conceal?
  3. Examining Political Cartoons
    Students, working in teams, will examine a selection of political comics and/or satirical cartoons that have recently appeared in newspapers and magazines. Teams should consider each cartoon in terms of the following questions:

    1. What is the intended message of this cartoon?
    2. What candidate/political party is being criticized?
    3. What issue(s) does the cartoon address?
    4. Is the cartoon fair-minded (which is not the same as neutral)?
    5. Is the cartoon successful in expressing its perspective?
    6. Do you agree or disagree with the point of view being expressed?
    7. What is the basis for your own opinion?

    Team members may not agree about how to assess each cartoon. In fact, it might be interesting for teams to share their ideas about the most controversial cartoons with the entire class.

  4. Further Activities
    Teachers may want to conclude this activity with a class discussion that draws parallels in how issues and candidates are presented in campaign advertisements, candidate debates, and political cartoons. Teachers could extend this activity by assigning teams to follow how one important issue in this campaign is treated by various media.


Source: Social Education, Volume 60, Number 6, Page 337, October 1996. Copyright National Council for the Social Studies Oct. 1996.

Series Directory

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