Before you go “here’s that guy talking again and again and again about why we should talk about politics in the classroom but it’s easy for him to say because he teaches in a liberal democracy and not in country X where I teach,” have you heard the one about the teacher in Palermo who was suspended from her job for talking about politics in the classroom? She has defenders and detractors (many of whom make no attempt to clarify what actually happened in that classroom), but what’s clear is that politics, in our politically charged times, can be tricky even in countries that in no way resemble country X.
But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Despite the Palermo incident, the Italian Ministry of Education says we should. As of this year in Italy, Cittadinanza e Costituzione – citizenship and the constitution – is a set subject in curriculum and on the matriculation exam, which means that government, human rights – and by extension, politics – will be taught to help foster more “active citizens” (and this in a country with higher than average voter turnout where many state schools already teach religion or non-religious morality classes as well as philosophy classes – deep-thinking topics that in my opinion students should be exposed to).
Which brings me to the European elections.
In this last week before the elections I’ve wanted to engage two classes of students on some basics about the elections, including why people (don’t) vote and how to get informed about your choices. Youth voter turnout is terrible (in much of Europe as well as my own country of origin, the US), and the one thing that all educators should agree on is that young people should understand how and where to vote. If that doesn’t sound so controversial, it shouldn’t. If they want to debate policy we can, but I’ve explicitly said that what I’m interested in is how they make decisions, not who they decide for.
The first is a small group of 5 high school students preparing for the Cambridge Advanced, two of whom are 18. The other group, an IELTS preparation class, has six students, including two 18-year old high school students, two under-24s and two over-30s. These are classes in a private language center, and the students are mostly L1 Italian.
Here are some useful sites and documents I found that I’ll refer to in the following activities.
- Overall voter turnout in EU elections since 1979
- Voter turnout by country (an awesome interactive chart from Politico)
- Youth voter turnout in 2014 EU elections
- EU elections: how to increase youth turnout?
- EU socio-demographic index (it’s a 124-page document – and the master source for some of the previous links – but the first few pages have some summaries of recent trends)
Here are three activities. These were all pretty spontaneous creations — knowing there’s something big like the EUROPEAN ELECTIONS coming up makes me practice avoidance strategies. It’s always something I want to deal with, but the topic can seem too big or overwhelming to start. But a few minutes of googling showed me youth voting statistics and I knew I had my in. The rest are back-of-the-envelope activities that evolved in class (as is often the case, the post-lesson reflection has taken a lot longer than the pre-lesson planning).
Cambridge Advanced proposal
Set up activities:
- Guess/predict voter turnout for age groups/countries in recent elections
- Compare predictions to reality using the charts above
- Brainstorm reasons as to why young people (or Europeans, or Italians) don’t vote
- Brainstorm possible solutions
Writing set up. A proposal (but you could equally do a CAE Report writing task)
EU Votes, an NGO, is looking for ways to increase voter turnout among young people for the 2019 EU elections. Write a proposal (220-260 worlds) in which you:
- Discuss why young people don’t vote
- Suggest possible solutions
- Say why these solutions would be effective at increasing voter turnout among young people
By the way, the reality of youth voter turnout (28% in the EU overall, and a slightly better 45% in Italy) was a real shocker for my students. All of the voting-age people said they would vote and the high school students predicted 90% of their friends would – which goes to show how outside the norm they are, and how educational the acutal research has been.
Comparing political platforms
When do you decide how to vote? We looked first at the question in the EU socio-demographic index about whether people report deciding in advance or right before the vote. And how do students know who to vote for? One of the suggestions from the writing task was to have a unified comparison site – like the ones you use to compare prices and features on a new mobile phone – where you could compare political party platforms. So we created our own analogue version, using the following set up:
- Board list of main parties
- Board list of major issues parties are addressing
- Students used their phones to look up the platforms for the various parties, e.g. Cinque Stelle, Europa Verde, the Lega, Forza Italia and Partito Democratico and take notes in English (from Italian sources)
- Due to limited board space, students discuss how to group issues – Abortion with Women’s Rights or the Family; Women’s Rights with Employment, etc. – to create useful categories for comparison
- Students board information
- In pairs, write sentences comparing and contrasting party ideas
Students were surprised by a number of discoveries, and in the process we talked about austerity and the right to asylum and the students left with larger vocabularies and more practice in useful structures and somewhat more informed about the impending vote than when they came in.
IELTS Writing Task 1: EU Election Voter Turnout
One thing I like about IELTS exam prep is Writing Part 1 task – especially when you can find (or have students find) their own data visualizations to analyze. But here we started with the introduction to the socio-politico index – which I swear is basically an IELTS coursebook in itself (so many charts and graphs, so much IELTS-ready language).
Here’s the outline of the procedure:
- Make predictions about results to survey questions in the socio-politico index – do more men or women vote, what age group votes most, what professional level, etc.
- Check predictions in introduction (pp. 3-6)
- Scan text for 3 examples each of big differences, small differences, superlatives, language for introducing a new topic (e.g. when it comes to…)
- Then I selected 5 countries from Politico’s awesome interactive chart and had students use the language to make comparisons. Followed by the same task using chart on voter turnout by age group.
The line graph shows voter turnout in European Elections between 1979 and 2014. The chart shows voter turnout by age group in the 2014 election.
Summarize the information by selecting and reporting the main features and making comparisons where relevant.
That’s it. No, there was no challenging of the dominant hierarchies — just run of the mill activities used with authentic materials and some fairly real-world objectives. While most of these documents will be still relevant – or updated – for the next elections, on the eve of this very important European vote I can’t think of anything I’d rather be discussing with my students.