Preparing for the 2020 Election Cycle
You Call This Democracy? How to Fix our Government and Deliver Power to the People
Written by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Ellen Duda
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020
ISBN: 9780358176923 Hardcover
ISBN: 9780358387428 Trade Paper
ISBN: 9781428192225 Audio
Grades 6 and Up
With the upcoming 2020 presidential and Congressional elections, as well as other important races in your state and local communities, we wanted to write about this new book in advance of election season, to support your summer planning.
“How does our democracy live up to the principle of one person, one vote? Is political power equally accessible to all citizens? What would it take to build ‘a more perfect union?’ (p. 3-4).” These big questions are the driving force behind Elizabeth Rusch’s You Call This Democracy? How to Fix our Government and Deliver Power to the People. In her introduction, Rusch maps out current problems that tear and fray the fabric of American democracy. She promises readers that “this book is, ultimately, a book of solutions” and that “[c]hange is in our reach” (p. 5). What follows is a tightly constructed sequence of chapters that each identify a particular challenge to our democracy. For example, “Strange Maps” is a chapter that addresses gerrymandering. “Elections for Sale” is a chapter focused on the outsized role of outside money in campaigns. Given the polarized nature of American politics and increasingly, American society, one might think that a book that takes on the concept of our democracy and the structures that support it would be too charged, too highly political. But this is not the case. Rusch’s careful research and writing allows readers to learn about problems that are impacting the process of representative democracy. Voices from all parts of the political continuum help to clarify the challenges articulated and some of the solutions proposed. Ellen Duda’s illustrations and infographics help readers visualize the information they read, some more effectively than others. When headlines scream out our political dysfunction, and a global pandemic keeps us uncertain at home, we can all feel powerless. But with a book like this, that offers both information and action, young people, their teachers, and their families can feel empowered. Tween and teen readers will find much to ponder as they approach voting age; secondary teachers of English/language arts and social studies will find the book ripe for civics lessons, classroom conversations, and projects that center students’ critical thinking, patriotism, and sense of justice.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Mentor Text: Visual Cues. As students make their way through the text, have them examine the start of each chapter. Most, but not all, start with drawings with one or more ballot boxes. Each ballot box has a “yes” or “no” voting option. One of the options has a check mark. As students read the first couple of chapters, have them go back to those illustrations. They aren’t merely decorative. How do they support the students’ comprehension of the chapter as a whole? How do they serve as a preview of the content? Encourage students to use the drawings as anticipatory guides as they read future chapters. Support students in applying this kind of visual cue in their current/next writing assignment. How can they create a visual that performs the function of highlighting the big ideas they are writing about, perhaps augmenting or even replacing chapter titles or headings in their writing?
Mentor Text: Writing Introductions. Author Elizabeth Rusch is very specific and intentional with her use of the introduction. What is she trying to accomplish? The information is both full of facts and full of emotion. As your students how the facts and more emotional arguments relate and support each other. Have your students visually map out the introduction using boxes and bullets, arrows or question marks, whatever your students decide can help them visualize the order of information in the introduction. How does Rusch move from a big picture conversation about democracy to the specific issues and goals of this particular book? Support students in applying this kind of engaging, interactive, yet highly functional writing in their own writing. What are some ways that they can adopt this structure in their current/next piece of writing?
Mentor Text: Meaning Drives Structure. One thing that students may notice as they read the book is that the chapters are of varying length. Have students review the Table of Contents. How is the book organized? Why do three chapters have “Flash” in red written next to them? (Note: these are the shorter chapters). Rusch clearly had developed the challenges to our democracy that warrant their own chapter. Some chapters are brief and focus on a very specific challenge; for example, the ways in which the Senate is unrepresentative of the country). Other chapters are lengthy, such as the chapter on voter suppression, which takes many forms. Have students compare the chapter structure of this book with other middle grade and young adult nonfiction books available to them (in print or digital). Now consider the messages we send to young writers. Do we push students to have artificially similar paragraph lengths? Do we push students to have a certain number of paragraphs in a piece of writing? Support students to apply this deeper thinking about content and structure to their own nonfiction/expository writing.
Mentor Text: Class Book. Have students adopt Rusch’s text structure and Duda’s use of illustrations and infographics in their own book. Have your class brainstorm contemporary issues that they are interested in exploring from both a historic and contemporary context. Have students vote on the topic they are most interested in exploring, and then develop a wider range of research questions. Divide students up by question and work with your school or local librarian to identify a range of digital resources on the topic. Depending on your students’ level of experience with research, create a template for note-taking, co-create a template with your students, or allow small groups to make that decision. Have students share the findings of their research (either in class face to face or via video conference). Allow students to decide in what order they should share their findings as chapters. Allow a small group of students to work on the book design. Publish the book in print or digital format; digital publishing allows you to make this class book available to students and their families, as well as the larger community through the school and local library websites.
The Cost of Local Elections. Chapter Four discusses the cost of elections, and the ways in which elections costs have spiked over the past fifteen years. Students may be interested in the timeline on page 73 that shows the sudden and steep shift in outside election spending that has mostly occurred during their lifetimes. On page 80, we learn that a local school board election in one Florida city cost a candidate $100,000. Have students brainstorm what they think local and state elections cost in your community. Next, have students research how much various candidates actually spent. How do the costs differ across the campaigns? How much did candidates for the school board spend as compared to the mayor’s office? What about the county sheriff? Have students explore local government structures and the elected positions within each, research recent local races, and interview candidates (those who won, those who lost) about how the need to fundraise impacted their ability to campaign and discuss issues with voters. Work with your school and local librarian to identify key resources for students to use. Students can also use the resources included in the “What You Can Do” and “For More Information” sections at the end of the chapter. Invite former candidates to come to the class for small group interviews or Zoom, Google Hangout or other forms of videoconferencing if you are teaching remotely. Have students discuss their findings with the candidates. Next, have students develop their ideas about how local elections should be financed. Should there be spending caps? Should local elections be publicly funded? Have students develop proposals individually or in small groups that they send to your town, city, or county leadership.
Considering the Electoral College. Chapter One focuses on the Electoral College. Before reading, ask students to brainstorm what they think they know about the Electoral College. Next, use the resources in the “What You Can Do” section at the end of the chapter as well as the book’s website to find out where you state stands in the national conversation about the relevancy of the Electoral College. Does your state support giving the vote to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote? Or does your state remain committed to the Electoral College? Where do your students stand? Explore the organizations and resources included in the book and others listed below in the Further Explorations section and decide
Duet Text Set: You Call This Democracy? and Fault Lines in Our Constitution. Have half of your class read Elizabeth Rusch’s You Call This Democracy? and have the other half of your class read Cynthia and Stanford Levinson’s Fault Lines in Our Constitution. As students progress through each chapter in their book, give them an opportunity to discuss the chapter contents in a small group. After every two or three chapters, put the students in mixed groups where they can report out their findings to one another and compare and contrast the ways in which the content of one book shed’s light on the other. Develop sentence starters for each chapter to provide a foundation for discussion, but encourage your students to bring their own questions and connections to the conversations. In each conversation, ask students to make connections to their lives in 2020.
Fighting Gerrymandering. After reading Chapter Two, have your students investigate voting districts in your state. Have students examine the Congressional district in which your school resides. What does it look like? Does it make sense to your students? Do some of your students live in a different Congressional district from the school itself? What about your state legislature? What state legislative district is your school in? What about your students’ neighborhoods or communities? Who draws these maps in your state? The politicians in the state legislature? Or does your state have an independent and bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting committee? With the 2020 federal census underway, now is the time to act on gerrymandering. Have your students interview local leaders in person or via video conferencing technology to find out their views on the districts. Have students research any citizen’s groups working on this issue locally or regionally. Work with a local librarian, local historical society, or local government to see what the districts looked like in the past. Ask your students individually, in pairs, or in small groups to decide how they think legislative districts should be created within the state and what they should look like. Allow time for students to present their ideas to one another and local leaders.
Researching Campaign Ads. After reading Chapter Four, have students conduct research this fall on local or national elections. Have them keep an ad notebook (or section of their notebook, literal or virtual). They can create their own templates for note-taking or you can co-construct something together after reading Chapter Four. As students scroll social media, what political ads pop up on which platforms? What do they see on Instagram versus Twitter (note Twitter’s policy on political ads). When students are on different websites, what ads pop up? When they watch television, what ads pop up? Have students note what the ad supports/condemns. What arguments are made for/against something? Who is the sponsor of the ad? Ask some students to watch at least one or two episodes of the “traditional” nightly news summary provided on the major television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) at 6:30 pm, online or on television. What political ads appear during this show? Which ads repeat themselves? Who pays for the ads? In what ways are they accurate? In what ways are they misleading? Have students keep track of political ads for one week, and then come together for small or large group discussions in-person or via Zoom, Google Hangout, or another video conferencing platform to share their findings.
Lowering the Voting Age? After reading Chapter Nine, have your students discuss their responses to the voting age. Do they think they should be able to vote at age 16? Why or why not? Have students poll teenagers and adults in your community. Have them start by creating a set of questions in a Google doc in small groups. Have each group share out their questions and then have the class compare and contrast the various questions. Have them pull the strongest questions from each group and synthesize them into a single questionnaire. Have some students interview young people ages 16-18 and others interview adults ages 19 and up. These interviews can be done in person, over the phone, or via video conference. Or, your students could share their questionnaire more broadly via their social media networks. Make the questionnaire available for a particular period of time only. What are the results? How does that match what your class discussed earlier in response to Chapter Nine? How does it compare with the young people quoted in the chapter?
The Structure of the Senate. In Chapter Three, Rusch discusses the problematic nature of the Senate, which gives disproportionate power to citizens in rural states. Have students discuss their reaction to this chapter. Does the structure of the Senate feel fair? How are their thoughts on this influenced by where they live? Do the citizens of your state gain or lose power with this structure? Using Zoom, Google Hangouts, or some other form of videoconferencing if you are teaching remotely or in person, interview staff members from both of your senators’ offices, as well as a constitutional lawyer from a local/regional law school, about the structure of the Senate. Have your students develop questions in advance, drawing on the content of the chapter, as well as their thoughts on the various alternative structures presented within the chapter. With any new structural concepts for the Senate, who gains power? Who loses power? Have students follow-up the interview by sharing their ideas for an alternative Senate structure with their two senators.
Multiple Perspectives: Considering the Senate from the Other Side. Instead of discussing the structure of the Senate with Senate staffers and constitutional lawyers, invite your students to discuss it with other young people in a different state. Collaborate with a teacher in a state that is the opposite of your own. For example, if you live in a highly populated state, find a teacher in a state with a small population. If you live in a state with a small population, find a teacher in a highly populated state. Social media or your professional organization like NCTE or NCSS (or the comments section of this blog) may be the best way to find such a teacher. Have students in each class develop a set of questions about the structure of the Senate to ask the students in the other. As they talk with one another via a Zoom/Google Hangout or other form of video conference (which can be done if you are teaching remotely or in person), have students consider how their love of their state and/or their discomfort or comfort with the current Senate structure shapes their conversation. Have students follow-up with one another in a few weeks to share alternative structures for the Senate. How are their structures similar? How are they different? Are there any that both sets of students agree on? What are some ways that they can take action across states to encourage other young people and their Senators to consider these ideas further?
Graphic Critiques. You Call this Democracy? focuses on the ways in which political power can be “delivered” to the people. It is a book that calls out power and privilege across the political spectrum and in the laws and structures that concentrate power in the hands of a small minority of wealthy Americans and foreign companies. But do the graphics within the book consistently reflect the diversity of America? How can artists create infographics that convey accurate information and avoid stereotypes and/or binary ways of thinking? Have students review the infographics in the book and consider the ways in which people are represented. What graphics would they revise to make them more reflective of our population? How can artists convey images of differently abled people? Non-binary individuals? The elderly? Explore infographics in your local paper as well as national papers. Look at other books that utilize infographics, if available in your actual or virtual classroom. What are exemplary examples?
Resisting Voter Suppression. After reading Chapter Six, ask your students to consider the ways in which organizations or political leaders in their community might be advocates of policies that suppress votes. In what ways might voter suppression be happening in our community? Invite the town/city clerk in your community to talk about current voter registration policies, either face to face or via video conferencing. You may also want to invite in the volunteers who work the polls at election day year after year, who are often retired members of the community. Have students develop a list of questions. What has changed in the recent past? Who made these decisions? What are the challenges they see voters facing? What kind of voter turnout do you normally have? Who is not voting? Working with your local or school librarian, curate digital resources about voter registration and polling sites in your state and your community for your students to use. Next, have students develop plans to challenge voter suppression issues that surface in their research. Have students advocate for their ideas with local and state leaders by writing letters or requesting meetings via video conference.
Electability and Language. Chapter Ten focuses on the expansion of representation in elected office. Who is elected? Who runs? What barriers do they face? One element of electability focuses on the language used by the media and by candidates themselves consciously or unconsciously influences voters. To explore this issue, have students examine “The Media Problem” on page 195. Next, divide students into pairs. Have each pair select presidential primary candidates from the last three election cycles (2020, 2016, 2012). Have the students curate news articles that include coverage of their candidate (work with the school or local librarian so that students know how to use digital databases that include news sources such as national newspapers, NPR, etc.). How is their candidate described in contrast to other candidates? Have them note similarities and differences in the reporting and share out with one another. Next, have the students keep a log of their own language use and that of their friends, teachers, and school community members. Is different language used for different people? How and why? How can your students become more aware of this? Develop a protocol that students can agree to follow when reviewing their own writing as well as that of their peers, and for use in class discussions.
Becoming Citizen Lobbyists! After completing Chapter 12, have students brainstorm issues about which they are passionate, and research those issues individually, in pairs, or in small groups. If you plan on having students write a class book on an issue of interest (see earlier teaching idea above), you can have them take action on that issue once they’ve completed their reading and writing. Have students review the advice and guidelines in Chapter 12 and advocate at the local, state, or national level.
Official Book Website: https://www.youcallthis.com/
Digital Resources from the Book:
Truth in Politics
Voting Rights for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Citizens
Lowering the Voting Age
Voting in the 21st Century
Goodman, S. 2012. See how they run: Campaign dreams, election schemes, and the race to the White House. Ill. by E. Smith. New York: Bloomsbury.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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