Presidential Election Countdown: 12 Actionable Topics to Cover in Your Classroom

Presidential Election Countdown: 12 Actionable Topics to Cover in Your Classroom

Every four years something very important happens in the United States government—the presidential election! It's an exciting time for Americans because they can watch the government change and evolve on national television. All of the major players have to state clearly what they believe and will fight for if elected. It's a fantastic opportunity to teach students about the U.S. government and how it works. You might think elections would be simple to cover in social studies classrooms. After all, elections span all the social sciences: history, geography, civics, economics, and sociology. However, elections also have drama, intrigue, deceit, manipulation, and controversial topics. That's what makes it hard for some elementary educators to decide how to teach elections to their students. Here you will find 12 purposeful and actionable topics to cover between now and November 8, 2016! Cover one topic a month, or pick and choose the topics that suit your needs best, and you will help prepare your students to be more thoughtful, engaged citizens. And isn't that the heart of what we strive for in a strong social studies education? Twelve Elections Topics (Plus Election Day 2016!)

1. Overview of the Election

What to Teach: Cover the basic concept of what an election is and why we have local, state, and national elections in a democracy.

Extension Idea: Introduce other common governments and compare and contrast them to the United States government.

Thinking/Writing Prompt: Think of a time you had to make an important choice. How did you choose between your options? How did you feel about your choice after you made it?

2. Presidential Elections

What to Teach: Most areas around the country will have had local and/or state elections in November. Look back at the results and discuss what changes occurred in your state or county. Are there any major policy changes expected because of the outcomes of the election. Discuss how presidential elections differ from local and state elections both in importance and in voter turnout.

Extension Idea: Look back in time at important presidential elections and discuss why they mattered to people at the time and/or to us today. Some elections to consider studying are: 1800, 1860, 1828, 1824, 1912, 2000, and 1796. Each of these had an impact on the election process in some way.

Thinking/Writing Prompt—Why does the United States have presidential elections every four years?

3. Rules and Laws about Being President

What to Teach: The U.S. Constitution has specific rules about being president of the country. Talk about these with students and have them study how the rules have changed over time.

Extension Idea: This is a good time to look at the history of voting in the United States from the earliest colonial congresses to today.

Thinking/Writing Prompt: If you could write a new election law for the Constitution, what would it be?

4. Political Parties

What to Teach: Take the politics out of political parties by looking at their history rather than the controversial aspects of the parties today. Students will enjoy tracing the parties through time to see which presidents were elected under which parties. Discuss the role that political parties play in American politics. Also talk about key third parties and how they affect the elections.

Extension Idea: Have them create their own political platforms by giving them a list of views on key issues, such as education, taxes, health care, military spending, and the environment. Do not associate the points of view you list with specific political parties. Instead, have students read the points of view and figure out what they really believe without the hindrance of the political party labels.

Thinking/Writing Prompt: How might having more than two major political parties change elections in the United States?

5. The Primaries

What to Teach: During the first few months of 2016, there will be presidential primaries throughout the country. Begin a chart in your classroom to keep track of the primaries as they occur. Note which candidates do well and which ones drop out of the race. Discuss how the primaries affect the group of candidates as they move into the heart of the campaign trail.

Extension Idea: Make predictions about the upcoming primaries and how the candidate field will change for each series of primaries.

Thinking/Writing Prompt: Why are the primaries an important part of the election process?

6. Being a Good President

What to Teach: Take this month to talk about what characteristics make a good leader. Look at strong presidents in history and analyze their personalities, educations, experiences, and impacts. What characteristics to the students see in common among the presidents who positively impacted the country?

Extension Idea: Have students look more deeply into world leaders who had or have negative influences on history. What characteristics do those leaders have? How do they compare to successful U.S. presidents?

Thinking/Writing Prompt: Have students draw label diagrams of their perfect presidents. Each diagram should include a body outline with labels to describe what the leader needs to be successful as president. For example, there could be a line to the diagram's head with a label reading, "Presidents have to be intelligent."

7. Who's in the Race?

What to Teach: Take this month to start discussing the actual candidates who are left in the race for each party. Analyze their characteristics and compare them to what your class decided was important during April.

Extension Idea: Make predictions as a class about who you think will be chosen by each political party. Look back in history to discover if the front-runners at this point in an election were ever over-looked at the National Conventions?

Thinking/Writing Prompt: Which candidate would you vote for to be the next president of the United States if you had to chose today? Why?

8. The Campaign Trail

What to Teach: Ask students what they already know about campaigning for president. What do candidates and their staffs do to get their messages heard? Collect evidence of campaigning that is currently happening and display them in your classroom (signs, bumper stickers, buttons, fliers, etc.).

Extension Idea: Have students find famous campaign slogans used throughout history. Discuss which ones still make sense today ("I Like Ike") and which ones are directly related to the time periods in which they were used ("Tippecanoe and Tyler Too").

Thinking/Writing Prompt: If you ran for president, what would be your slogan?

9. National Conventions

What to Teach: Study pictures of past conventions to look for similarities among the events across years and among the political parties. Discuss what major decisions are made at the conventions.

Extension Idea: Research to discover if there were ever any major upsets at national conventions in the past. (Check out 1976, 1832, and 1924 for starters.)

Thinking/Writing Prompt: How do you feel about the fact that the presidential nominee gets to choose his or her own vice presidential running mate?

10. The Electoral College

What to Teach: Describe the difference between popular vote and electoral vote. Show students an electoral college map and discuss how each state's number of votes is decided.

Extension Idea: Research to find elections that are considered controversial due to the Electoral College (1800, 1824, 1872, 1876, 1888, 2000). How might the outcomes have been different with only the popular vote?

Thinking/Writing Prompt: Do you think it is fair that a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election? Give at least two reasons to support your opinion.

11. Presidential Debates

What to Teach: The best way to learn about debates is to watch them. Explain to students the format of the presidential debates and then have them watch one of the debates scheduled for late September through mid-October.

Extension Idea: Have students create Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the candidates' points of view on key topics discussed in the debate(s).

Thinking/Writing Prompt: What do you think is most important in a debate: to make important points, to stay positive, to make your opponent look bad, or to stay calm?

12. Election Day

What to Teach: Students love having the opportunity to vote themselves. Use this month to prepare students for making their own decisions about whom they would choose as president. As you close in on November 8, set up a polling place in your school or classroom and create ballots for the election.

Extension Idea: Instead of voting on the actual, national election, use this month to run a simulated election in your class. Set up political parties. Choose candidates through conventions. Create platforms and slogans. Then, hold a debate. Finally, have the students choose who they think would be the best president.

Thinking/Writing Prompt: How might elections in the United States be different if children were allowed to vote?

Election 2016: November 8

Have your students track the election results on an electoral college map!

Free Resources! For additional support in the classroom,click the link below to download FREE lessons and activities about elections! Perfect for grades K-2 and 3-5. Free Lessons:



Author bio

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed.

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed., Editorial Director

Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed., is an award-winning editorial director and former elementary school teacher. She has worked in the field of education as a teacher and editor for 20 years. Emily is currently an editorial director with Teacher Created Materials, Inc. As a former classroom teacher, she knows how hard it can be to reach and engage students in today’s schools. Her experience and insight are valuable tools as she strives to help teachers by creating thoughtful, original products and delivering them in flexible and innovative ways.