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Election primer Tackling the presidential campaign in history class

With the 2008 presidential campaign in its final days, you can't turn on a television, switch on your radio, or even log onto your e-mail without being inundated by political pundits or campaign coverage. So why should school be any different? Two teachers at Nardin Academy, Mary Sharrow, who teaches junior year American History and AP American History, and Donna Seymour, who teaches senior year AP U.S. Government and sophomore year AP European History, sat down to discuss how they teach the campaign in class.

NeXt: Why do you think this election is so crucial and do you think it pales in comparison to other elections in history?

Seymour: I think as we enter the 21st century it's going to be more important for whoever the president is to be someone who can restore faith in America, that we are still the leaders of the free world, I think it's going to be important that the president is someone who's going to be able to tackle the economic problems because we are definitely an intertwined global economy. Is this the most defining election? It would appear to be in comparison to the previous elections in the last 30 years. However, going back to the 1960s, certainly the election of John F. Kennedy and LBJ were both defining inasmuch as they were tackling major issues of civil rights.
Sharrow: I think that each election is probably important but I think this is especially important in light of the candidates' position on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, how long we're going to be there in relation to the economy. The cost is so great and we haven't paid for it by increasing taxes or by having people on the home front make a sacrifice. It's just been the same reserves, officers, or enlisted people going over there and I think that's wrong, and I think it's an issue of they haven't been given proper care when they came back so I think that's one issue. ... The second issue is the economy now, with the falling stock market, the value of the dollar and the housing crisis and lack of deregulation that makes our choices very important because the next four years will be critical in terms of the economy certainly and the way the two impact.

NeXt: What have you been doing in the classroom to teach the election?
Sharrow: As we study the formation of political parties, we talk about the formation of parties today, so we do a little bit more and they have more of an understanding of it. We do the first cartoon of Benjamin Franklin and I also get political cartoons out of The Buffalo News and I ask them to identify who the people are in the cartoon, what the point of the cartoon is. As I teach history, I draw parallels with foreign policy or the war, then each student must select a candidate to research .
Seymour: I think I try to interject current politics where possible rather than preach about it, I try to keep an open mind in terms of presenting the material.

NeXt: How has teaching of politics changed since you were in school and how have the teaching methods and technology improved it?
Sharrow: We have Channel 1 here at school, so in the morning the kids can see a little summary of the various debates which we couldn't have done before. Later on in the course when I teach the 1960 election, we have video that shows the first political debate and they can see the candidates and how it was run. So, I think today technology aids in letting them see the debate if they weren't able to see it and obviously the Internet you can find part of an interview with someone. The Smart Boards, too, you can play clips or something that you can use as a lead into a discussion. Our political debate club, too, will pick issues and debate the issues, splitting the sides into Obama and McCain.

NeXt: The last generation of teens, also known as "Generation X", was often viewed as the "slacker" generation that was apathetic toward politics. Do you see an enthusiasm in the classroom now that you have not seen with students in past elections?
Sharrow: I think students are more concerned about what is going on in their life, the amount of homework they have, SATs, a job, it takes a great deal of time. I think there's really only a small group that watches the news on television and most don't keep up with day to day events and feel unfortunately that it doesn't affect them. I think they pay less attention to current events then they would have in the early '80s because students didn't have iPods, cell phones, or other distractions so maybe they put more time into TV.
Seymour: Yes, I do think there is an enthusiasm. I think the enthusiasm has been generated by eight years of a lackluster presidency. I think that Barack Obama has brought vigor and vitality to the election inasmuch as he appears youthful in comparison to John McCain. I think that the young people have looked at Barack Obama as the hope for the future. I think they see in him someone they can identify with. So I think that has generated more enthusiasm among the voting population. Whether there is more enthusiasm in the classroom, it's difficult to discern. I think it's all in the way politics is presented.

NeXt: So do you think that Barack Obama has really energized the youth vote? Do you think that the youth vote is going to be a determining factor in this election?
Seymour: I think a lot depends on whether the youth actually show up at the polls. Traditionally they (youth) have not had a historic record of showing up, despite the fact that they've registered and have been enthusiastic at rallies it's often been the case where they left their duty at the time it was most important. So a lot depends on whether they actually show up at the polls.

NeXt: Most of the students you teach are unable to vote, why should this matter to them?
Seymour: Because I think it's forming their future, I think the election of 2008, while they cannot vote now is certainly going to determine the future of where the country is going.

Leigh Giangreco is a senior at Nardin.

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