Teaching Elections and the Electoral College

I couldn’t be more pleased with my US History class. First, the behavior issues are far less severe. I’m not sure why. Last time I taught, two years ago, each of my two classes had ridiculous behavior challenges of the sort I hadn’t dealt with since leaving Algebra 1 behind, thus triggering PTSD attacks and flashbacks. I had been prepared for that possibility, since US History, unlike AP, has a huge range of abilities, so I thought maybe the occasional unmanageable was just the price of admission.

But this year, I have no major challenges thus far, despite having a few unmotivated students. I don’t think I’ve dramatically improved my classroom management skills. At first, I just thought it was lucky chance, but a month in, it’s clear some students could produce the same challenge of years past. Yet they’re not nearly the hassle.

Tentatively, I’m thinking that my curriculum has helped. Rather than starting with early migration patterns, I kicked off with the 2016 election, and then went back to other elections. Competitions are naturally interesting.

I revamped the Question 1 unit from my original plans. Sectionalism will get moved to Question 2, mostly, with some in Question 3. Colonial history got moved to the immigration section, which I think is now Question 4. I only lightly touched on women getting the franchise–I’m going to put that in Question 3, paying the bills.

So what was left in Question 1:

  1. What is the electoral college?
  2. Why does the electoral college exist? Move from Articles to Constitution, small states vs large states, slavery representation.
  3. Political systems: America is a two party country. To oversimplify, one party has historically represented economic and business concerns, the other representing the rights and interests of the individual. (So, class, which party would you think championed abolition, the end of slavery? WRONG! But thanks for playing. They’re very interested in seeing how that came about.) So periodically, we’ll cover the political systems in effect at the time. This go-round, I covered Federalist-Democrat Republican split purely in terms of its existence, and Democrat-Republican split on tariffs. I’ll bring up additional details each cycle.
  4. Expansion of the franchise in the 19th century–specifically, white men without property and black men, as well as the failure to expand it to women.
  5. Elections: The elections with a EV/PV split, while perfectly legit constitutionally, have all been unusual. Two probably involved fraud or intimidation. I also threw in two early elections and Tyler’s assumption of the presidency.

This isn’t a government class, but we looked at Amendments 12-15.
Elections covered in this order:

  • I used the 2016 election to illustrate, which was a romping success and set the tone for the class.
  • After covering the Constitutional Compromises, we looked at the 1796 and 1800 elections–the first to show the unexpected consequences of “first place, second place” in light of the development of parties, the second to show the results of the 3/5ths Compromise.
  • The Corrupt Bargain of 1824
  • Tyler and the Vice Presidency: I included this because it seemed the right place. It wasn’t obvious that the Vice President would assume the presidential role until he said well, yeah, it is.
  • The End of Reconstruction, Compromise of 1877.
  • Election of 2000–out of order, because I had to take a day off for algebra 2 planning. So they watched (and mostly didn’t understand) Recount and then I finished up with that one.
  • Election of 1888

Methods: varied. I did more lecturing than last time, but still a lot of variety. So for the 1800 election, they read about the 3/5ths compromise and used census data to calculate how many extra votes were handed to Thomas Jefferson and what would have happened otherwise (thanks, Garry Wills!). For the Corrupt Bargain, they evaluated Henry Clay’s predictions and compared them to the actual electoral votes–and then compared actual electoral votes to the House vote. They did a lot of reading, usually in class-led situations (otherwise, they won’t do it), including longer pieces on Reconstruction and the Whisky Rebellion. I covered the 2000 election with a CNN documentary and a NY Times retrospective. Then I jigsawed the election of 1888, giving eight groups a different aspect to cover.

One of my favorite activities was on the 15th amendment–I created a group of profiles–black sharecropper, white female abolitionist in Ohio, white former slave owner, Hispanic Texan, married female ex-slave in Mississippi, etc. Then they considered how each person might feel about expanding the franchise. Would a black woman in Kentucky want women to get the franchise, or would that just increase the number of whites voting against issues that mattered to her? Would a black man in New York have different opinions about giving white women the vote than one in South Carolina? Why might a white woman in Kentucky have different opinions about abolition than a white woman in Ohio? And so on. We focused on the franchise not as a right, but rather as a pragmatic consideration–who’s going to vote for the things I want? Then we revisited the issue in 2000 and 2016 with the different views on voter identification.

Onwards. If you’re interested in the test questions, here you go.

I love building history tests with multiple answers–which, as I’ve mentioned, become True/False.

They did pretty well. This was a tough test. Highest score: 91%. Student performance showed a clear pattern: they knew some topics better than others, but the topics varied. Which means it wasn’t my teaching or the curriculum that determined the variance.

I figured out a way to weight half the results at 2 points, the other half at one point, giving each student more credit for the questions they knew well. This boosted everyone’s grade 10-20% over what a straight percentage calculation would have done (except for the high scorer, who I calculated as a percentage).

I also corrected the tests without actually writing on them, just putting the total correct at the bottom of each page. Students will be able to research the actual answers, write up a brief analysis, and turn in the corrected test. I won’t boost their first grade, but count it as a second 10-point test, which will give another boost.

There were two tests, of course. So in one, Matthew Quay helped Benjamin Harrison (true), whereas in this one below, Quay helped Cleveland (false).

matest1800election

I thought they’d do well on this one. Love the cartoon. But performance on this really lagged.

mattylertariff

The Tyler question saw good performance overall, although some kids clearly had no clue and had blanked it out of memory. The tariff question was designed so that if a student didn’t remember Dem/Rep position, he was guaranteed to get hurt.

matcompof1877

Worst overall performance. Almost all the information for this came from a reading, and clearly a lot of them didn’t retain and didn’t study.

mat2016
mat2000recount

No student got fewer than 8 of these correct. Great performance.

matvotingrights

Generally good performance. This alerted me to students who simply weren’t paying any attention at all, since the questions covered topics throughout the unit.

matcorruptbargain

Here’s something I struggle with on grading: what do I do with students who mark D, E, and F as True? Some of them clearly weren’t random guessers. So were they not sure and hedging their bets? Or did they think each one was true, and in that case, what are they failing to put together? Also sad: the number of students who got everything right EXCEPT they thought Clay wrote this in 1888. I’m doing a lesson on how to order events mentally–I don’t think kids always think this through.
matfrances

In the “jigsaw” lesson, I needed an extra, simple topic for some weaker students and other than Hillary, no woman had been mentioned since the semester began. Frances Townsend was an interesting, off-beat topic to explore, plus she was relatively close to my students’ age when she became First Lady. But this quote was great, because it allowed me to test them on the election results as well.

Dig that Matthew Quay pickup! Hat tip and thanks to Richard Brookhiser, who put me onto the Tammany Hall connection. We covered different perspectives on what, exactly, Quay did. I really had no idea that the election of 1888 involved so much fraud. The AP US History test hasn’t covered it, at least in the years I prepped for it.

matfeddr

Really good performance on both, which surprised me because I taught this early in the semester–at the same time as the first question. I would have thought they’d remember people and results better than political parties and outcomes. Moreover, the Whiskey Rebellion was also a reading, something we only covered in a day. Weird.

It was a tough test, with relatively few clues and a great deal of reading. I also do brief essay questions, but we didn’t cover any issue in enough depth to warrant one. That will come later.

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2 responses to “Teaching Elections and the Electoral College

  • davidgriswoldhh

    This is a pretty awesome way to cover US History. I do envy the freedom that comes with such a curriculum – this thematic ordering is so much more interesting and memorable than chronological and is a lot like how my colleagues and I used to do middle school science (well, they still do it that way). It’s always been amazing to me how few history departments double down on thematic structuring; I understand the idea that you need to know “what happened before” but you don’t need to know EVERYTHING that happened before to understand something recent, just the stuff in the same strand. Obviously there are departments that do it, but not enough in my opinion.

    Still, if I were designing my own like you I’d be nervous that I’d “miss something important” – though admittedly my pressures on that front are probably different than yours. Lots of private school parents want to make sure their kids suffer in all the same ways they did – builds character, you know.

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