Informed Decision Makers

Independent. Republican. Democrat. Libertarian. We all make choices about which political party best represents our current thinking. But how do we reach these decisions?

Developing critical thinking abilities is an important facet of education at St. John’s, so important that it is clearly delineated in St. John’s Picture of a Graduate. Curiosity and decision-making skills are necessary aptitudes for success in the classroom and in life. Bringing these capacities to the forefront of students’ proficiencies helps ensure they are equipped to evaluate complexities and reach independent conclusions. Here are two examples of ways these skills are deliberately explored in Middle School.

The American Political Process

The November 2016 election cycle provided a distinct opportunity for eighth grade students to explore the U.S. political process through a “hands on” approach designed specifically for them by history teacher LeAnne Wyatt and Technology Integration Specialist Debbie Carona.

Last summer, the dynamic pair collaborated to create a project-based learning experience (PBL) to fit St. John’s needs. Their efforts were funded with a Parents Association disbursement for summer curriculum development. This unique project launched at the beginning of the school year with an in-depth study of the U.S. Constitution and concluded with a mock election mirroring the presidential election in early November.

Given the close proximity of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, St. John’s students were able to take a field trip to the library and visit the special exhibition, “The Path to the Presidency.” An interactive display that included prior elections, it gave students a glimpse at the experience of running for the highest office in our country.

Mrs. Wyatt and Ms. Carona adapted Mike Kaechele’s high school curriculum from the Buck Institute of Education. Kaechele’s curriculum was followed by high schools across the nation, with St. John’s being the only middle school to take on this ambitious exploration. Building the project around the driving question, “How can we create a new political party?” first steps in addressing this included consideration of what it means to have moderate, conservative or liberal views. Students were tasked with the responsibility of researching and presenting these differing stances on three important issues: gun control, immigration and energy.

Expanding upon this work, these perspectives were put into the context of political party platforms, which included consideration of third parties. Students examined several third party platforms including Libertarian, Reform, Constitution and Green and shared with classmates. This base of knowledge gave students the needed tools to begin to consider the political spectrum, from far left to far right, in terms of their own beliefs and the ability to place themselves on that spectrum.

The natural progression of this PBL next took students to respond to two online quizzes that, based on their answers to questions about political issues, told them which candidate they would be most likely to support. After reviewing these results alongside where they placed themselves on the political spectrum, Mrs. Wyatt and Ms. Carona placed students into homogeneous groups. These groups became responsible for developing their political platforms based on their joint beliefs and promoting their perspective and plans. The first group priority was development of a class civility rubric to which each group, and all of their work, was held accountable throughout the project.

Students in each group completed an application for the position they wished to hold within the group – candidate, campaign manager, advertisement producer, print advertising manager and webmaster. This application process was important, not only in students’ study of the American political process, but also aligned with speech class activities critical to their high school application process.

With roles filled, students got to work on a myriad of projects that supported their group’s platform including 30-second filmed campaign advertisements, campaign posters, presidential stump speeches and a compelling webpage. Students learned about persuasive techniques in advertising and were required to include some of these techniques in their own advertising campaigns. Eleven parties were born: Aequitarian, Amity, Equalists, Federation, Light, Modern, Monumental, Our Generation, People’s, Reestablishment and Serene.

Individual elections were held in each of Mrs. Wyatt’s three history sections. Presidential candidates gave their stump speeches and students voted based on that speech. One or two groups won in each section to advance to the primary election. The primary election gave students the opportunity to narrow down the candidates to two parties for the final election. The final election took place October 19 with each candidate giving their stump speeches to the entire Middle School student body which filled Parish Hall for the event. During the presidential election, Will McVicker represented the Federation Party (teammates Gabby Juett, Colton Speer and Anna Shirey) and Matthew Schopmeyer represented the Our Generation Party (teammates Eva Roumaya, Isala Kice, Kathleen Armstrong and Cooper Moseley). Both gave inspiring speeches supported with commercials to accentuate their platform. Students were captivated by the presentations and voting was held immediately following.

The winner, Our Generation Party, submitted their filmed advertisement and website to a national competition sponsored by Mike Kaechele, the original creator of the project. Our Generation’s project was selected as a finalist, an amazing accomplishment given the fact that their work was in competition against high schoolers’. St. John’s students had the opportunity to see the work of others from all over the U.S. and to vote for the group that had the best platform, but were not allowed to vote for themselves.

Although Our Generation did not win the national election, students learned a great deal from the project. Nick Heatly, a member of the People’s Party shared, “This project has helped me become a better citizen by teaching me to understand our government and how it works…it has taught me the lesson that if you lose, it is not the end of the world and you may have to find another party to represent your beliefs.” Colton Speer, representing the Federation Party agreed saying, “This project helped me become more aware of the issues America is facing now. It also helped me be better at coming up with solutions to the problems. It made me think of what we could do to fix them.”

Many cross-curricular elements were incorporated in My Party Election 2016 including persuasive speech, art, debate, writing, research, graphing, current events and research. The project was entirely a student-driven, collaborative effort. Mrs. Wyatt was most proud of the students and their efforts sharing, “Students were able to challenge themselves in areas of strength and to grow as they pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones.” Teachers modeled this collaborative effort as well. Each worked with students on areas of their own expertise. Mrs. Wyatt worked with presidential candidates as they wrote stump speeches and honed public speaking skills. Ms. Carona worked with campaign managers helping them to facilitate and organize the assignments of the other students in the group. Technology Support Specialist Josh Del Regno trained the webmasters on the app they used. Integrated Drama Specialist Tom Parr worked with students who were writing and filming advertisements and Integrated Art Specialist Donna Knox aided students who were designing logos and campaign posters. The great success of this PBL has led to a decision to continue to offer this learning experience, even in non-election years.

Fake News?

Students today are bombarded with information due in part to the seemingly endless ways in which technology makes communication possible. With this persistent influx, the ability to separate fact from fiction is a challenge.

Sixth grade world history teacher Clay Buckley weaves an invaluable element of contemporary history into his classroom. The proliferation of today’s technology and access to media outlets provide an opportunity for him to teach students the importance of making informed opinions, ones based on fact rather than feelings. Mr. Buckley reminds students, “It isn’t my role to tell you what to think, but to help you figure out what you think.” This valuable skill is one students develop through a variety of sources, with Mr. Buckley giving careful attention to provide both conservative and liberal points of view. Students view a daily summary news broadcast from Channel One News, designed for students in grades six through 12 balanced with five-minute video clips from Prager University on the same topics. “We all have biases. Every single one of us. It is important to realize that and to be able to make decisions based on facts, rather than feelings.”

The work Mr. Buckley does with students has a direct benefit to their study of world history. Students can more easily see through the eyes of historical figures to gain a deeper appreciation of their worldview. They can also discern fact from fiction. An example of this is the sixth grade study of Greek historian Herodotus. Known as the Father of History, Herodotus also wove storytelling into factual accounts. Students can sort out the fantastical elements that include involvement of gods such as Aries assisting in battle from the factual aspects. Opening students’ eyes to applying discernment in their studies is an important skill that helps them become inquisitive seekers rather than rote memorizers of data.

Graduating eighth grader Maya Sanchez summed up St. John’s goals for students’ experiences when she said, “I enjoyed sharing my opinions with classmates, because everyone was very respectful about my views, despite our differences. I would like to think that I left them with something to think about, because after hearing others’ perspectives, I was left thinking.”