A version of this article appeared on print in our November 2016 issue.
For many students, a forced in-class debate concerning Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton vs. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is a nightmare come true. For others, however, the upcoming presidential election offers a chance to learn more about the structure and role of American democracy, through a class called American Electoral Politics.
Meeting five times a cycle during Purple and Red blocks, American Electoral Politics is a semester long class that runs every other year for upperclassmen. Due to the upcoming presidential election, the elective has grown especially popular this fall.
The class covers two main topics: the structure of presidential elections, and the upcoming presidential election specifically.
For the first topic, students will learn how primaries work, how campaigns are funded, what legislation surrounds campaigning, what voting rights are, and what the electoral college does.
“In that section we’ll be debating to what extent all of those systems actually facilitate American voice, so how much does each vote actually count when you take into all of these factors, and all the different players that create those systems,” said Ms. Emily Shapero, who has taught the class since September of 2012.
Caroline Lane ’17, a student in the class, considers this part of the course to be an important part of voting education. “I take my responsibility as a voter very seriously, so I try my best to be informed about everything– not just the presidential race,” she said.
The second part then focuses on how politicians are able to reach and communicate with their audiences to win elections.
“We’re looking at campaign strategy and how the media comes into play in interpreting campaigns and interpreting candidate statements. We’re going to be asking ourselves what are voters really looking for when they’re making their decisions and how do the campaigns play that out,” said Shapero.
For Zoe Salvucci ’17, learning about campaign strategies has shaped how she views the current presidential election. “It’s interesting, because now every time I see a politician on the news, whether or not I agree with their policies, I notice them using different techniques to avoid answering a question completely or trying to divert the attention away from the topic at hand,” she said.
After learning about these two topics, the class will participate in two projects. First, students from both color blocks will create a guide for new voters that Shapero hopes the class can publish. This is a new project in the history of the course, inspired by a published book written by students at High Tech High School in San Diego, which Shapero toured with the Evolutions staff.
“In that, I hope students see that there’s real significance to their work, and it could actually help people understand the system,” said Shapero.
According to Lane, spreading class information is a priority for students with friends who can vote. “As many of us will be new voters this election, it’s really important that we not only inform ourselves but our peers as well,” she said.
Not only will this project circulate educational material that can help shape a voter’s stance, but Shapero also hopes this type of project can make the class more meaningful. “The project helps students realize how useful they can be in expanding the democracy,” she said. “Knowledge is power. By helping other people have knowledge about how the system works, they will actually be really effective participants in the whole system.”
The second project the class plans to embark on is exit polling during the national election. On November 8th, from 7:00AM to 7:00PM, students will spread around the Greater Boston Region, collecting data about voter demographics. Students will study the relationship between what demographic categories individuals identify as and whom they voted for..
“Our goal is to identify any voting patterns based on things like race, gender, or age,” said Shapero.
Although this is a project the course has taken on for every class in the past few years, this year, Shapero has contacted David Flaherty, a Wellesley High School alum, who works in Colorado for a company called Magellan Strategies, to help with the process. Magellan Strategies helps campaigns determine the best way to work through demographic and voting data. Shapero plans on Skyping him into the class as a guest speaker to discuss how the data the class collects compare to aggregate data from the Greater Boston region.
With the sensitive subjects covered in this class, however, only an unbiased, objective teacher can create a safe and respectful atmosphere.
“I view my job as teacher of this class to help the students in the class figure out how to access and interpret the most objective information they can get their hands on, which is hard in this election,” said Shapero.
Despite the challenges, Salvucci claimed that Shapero has been the main force behind keeping petty arguments out of the class. “She’s a really great teacher and encourages class discussion, even when it’s not part of the agenda for the day,” she said. “She also makes sure when we present our arguments, formal or informal, that we give an objective description of the facts first and then say our opinions.”
As for Shapero, she explained, “The more I can differentiate that for them, the more they can understand when I’m speaking as myself as a human versus when I’m speaking as their teacher, trying to present them with the facts.”
Furthermore, Shapero’s project-based learning style suits many of her students. “She really is great at helping us understand the content and understands different learning styles, since she teaches Evolutions,” said Brett Canzano ’17.
In fact, Grace Ronchetti ’17 stated that one of her favorite parts of the class was the projects. “We had a fallacy brunch, where everyone dressed up and brought food, and we discussed fallacies,” she said, referring to a class about failures in the candidates’ rhetoric.
For many, American Electoral Politics is enjoyable simply because it fosters political discussion. “I love to talk about politics, even though I typically keep my opinions to myself in class so I don’t start political wars,” said Canzano.
That said, there are always challenges in a class full of politically engaged students. “It’s hard to share your opinion sometimes, because of the hardcore political warriors who always try to start arguments,” said Canzano.
While Shapero strives to keep lessons objective, she notes, “There are a lot of competing opinions, and there are times when I’m asking students to ask themselves if the interests that they have in a topic that we’re discussion are largely ideological or largely academic.”
Lane also noticed a difference between healthy and unhealthy discussions. “It’s so easy to debate politics using personal opinions, but discussions are much more productive when you use evidence,” she said.
“The goal is to try to get the students to be objective and leave those assumptions at the door,” said Shapero.
All in all, American Electoral Politics is just a class full of people interested in politics. “It’s a really nice way to bond with people you’ve never spoken to before, or people you were friends with but didn’t know they were interested in politics,” said Salvucci. “There’s also a wide range of interest and background knowledge among the students, which allows for different perspectives in class discussions.”
And the class is just another way for students to express their interests. “The class really helps at engaging all of us into the political contest, and gives us a hands on experience to understand the content,” said Canzano.