I had already checked the news at least four times before the first bell rang. It was primary voting day in Florida. In my classroom, we were in the middle of a literature-circle unit. Not wanting to miss the electoral relevance of the day, I chose to embed the political world within students’ ongoing reading, analysis and discussion of nine books. This integration ensured that students didn’t feel a disruption within the curriculum while being exposed to real-word political happenings.
I began by asking students to brainstorm some of the major topics in the books we were reading. These books ranged from young adult novels like If You Could Be Mine, Sunrise Over Fallujah and Never Fall Down to more classic pieces like Lord of the Flies and The Things They Carried. Students immediately pointed out such subjects as war, the military, refugees, same-sex couples and Muslim representation within their selected texts. Using the primary ballot as our guide, students then read the presidential candidates’ websites and recorded where each stood on the identified issues. Finally, I asked students to select major characters from their books and cast ballots on the characters’ behalf. I stressed to students that they were not voting for a candidate; the characters were doing the voting and students were expected to use the texts to explain why each made their choice.
Students engaged in nuanced discussions around complex issues like gender and power when participating in this activity. For instance, many students who read Lord of the Flies pointed out how Simon’s intellectual nature and instinct to care were “feminized” in the book, while Ralph’s and Jack’s more aggressive approaches to leadership earned them status. These students then spoke more broadly about war and how voters often embrace candidates—mostly men—who are seen as possessing foreign policy and military acumen. Students concluded that Simon would cast his vote for Bernie Sanders while Jack would vote for Donald Trump. Another group of students, who were reading Mare’s War, discussed how the titular character is forced to adopt certain “masculine” traits to succeed in the military. Students noted that Mare would vote for Hillary Clinton because of her foreign policy stance and a domestic policy platform that includes paid parental leave.
These are just two examples of conversations that occurred when I asked my students to think about how the characters would vote and why. The activity is applicable to almost any book or set of texts. It encourages students to consider characters’ perspectives and analyze how the characters made sense of their world before drawing comparisons to our national political context.
Using literature to teach about candidates’ views satisfies the need to have students critically engage with the media and with political ideologies while adhering to state and administrative mandates such as the Common Core State Standards. During my classroom activity, students referenced the text, made interpretative statements and defended their ideas based on textual evidence. Additionally, students read nonfiction texts such as the websites of candidates. More important, they adopted multiple perspectives to read the word and the world.
The trepidation teachers have around discussing politics is palpable, especially during an election year such as this one. However, having students discuss issues through the lenses of literary characters can alleviate the concern that the teacher is trying to “indoctrinate” students into a partisan mode of thinking. It also helps to highlight the enduring importance of literature within our society.
Elections have consequences, and students should know where major candidates stand on crucial issues. However, I want my students to know more than where candidates stand on a particular issue. I want them to understand how candidates and their respective parties and ideologies think about the world at large. In short, students don’t need to just know what a candidate believes but why the candidate thinks that way, and how that belief system will influence the way the candidate would govern. Literature offers a vehicle to help hone this type of critical thinking. More broadly, literature has always been a powerful tool to help think about the world. That statement remains true in 2016.
Miller teaches ninth-grade English language arts at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, the University of Florida’s affiliated K-12 laboratory school. He is also a recipient of the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.