Democracy in Action (12th)

Democracy in Action

Grade Level


Subject Area

American Government


Maryann Wolfe, Oakland Technical High School


After the Constitutional Convention ended, a woman asked Ben Maryann_PhotoFranklin: “What kind of government have you created?” Franklin responded: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”  The implication: representative democracy is not just a topic of philosophical conversation, but rather democracy requires responsibility. Citizens need to participate, either by running for office, becoming an active member of a political party, or simply voting. What research shows is that young people who engage in civic education and civic action are more likely to continue this commitment as adults. So it is incumbent upon government teachers to engage students in civic action. Teachers need to go beyond the textbook and make connections with local, state, and national government and politics as students learn the academic aspects of our governmental structures.

Before students can be asked to engage in political action, they must go through a process to discover their own political beliefs, so a lesson in political socialization is imperative. The next step would require engaging students in a study of political parties, enabling students to see how their views might link with a particular party – Democratic, Republican, or a Third Party. Ultimately, students would be encouraged to see the importance of engaging in political action, either by (1) campaigning for mayoral, gubernatorial, or presidential candidates (2) promoting a ballot measure, or (3) participating in a political demonstration showing dedication to a cause.


Especially in mid-term and presidential election years, students will learn about political socialization, political parties, voting and other forms of political action, especially why it is important to participate in a democracy.  A two-day mini-unit on political socialization will be followed by a seven-day unit on political parties where students will compare and contrast party platforms of the major and third parties. In a subsequent 6-day unit, students will learn why voting is important as well as explore possible political actions beyond the voting booth. This document emphasizes lessons that prepare students to take political action. On the calendar, these days are 16 and 17.

Learning Outcomes

Civic Engagement: Students will learn how to participate in a democratic society, either through voting, campaigning for parties and/or ballot measures, or engaging in political demonstrations.

When in the year is the lesson taught?

Three weeks prior to the November elections in presidential and mid-term years.


The unit will last 17 class periods including nightly homework as well as 4 hours of civic action outside the classroom.


To enable students to take any kind of political action, it is imperative that they have an understanding of the range of political ideas in American society, how people come to their political orientation, and what options they have to act upon their political beliefs.

Thus students will need to engage with the following topics and analyze the issues within:

Issue Analysis

Days 1 and 2: Political Socialization:

  • What factors influence opinion formation?
  • Why do people form political opinions?


    • Text – American Government: Continuity and Change, 2006 Edition (Karen O’Connor and Larry Sabato), Chapter 11.

Days 3-9: Political Parties:

  • Define political parties.
  • Note the functions of political parties in government and in elections
  • Discuss the differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties as well as key Third Parties.


Text – American Government: Continuity and Change, 2006 Edition (Karen O’Connor and Larry Sabato), Chapter 12.

Articles –  2012 Party Platforms (Democratic, Republican, Green, Constitution, Libertarian, and Socialist, available online) NOTE: I used articles that summarized party platforms, not the full party platforms.

Video –  “Crashing the Parties” (PBS) [This is about Third Parties in the 2004 election season.]

Days 10-15: Voting

  • Note the purposes of elections.
  • Discuss primary and general elections
  • Examine voting behavior in the United States
  • Discuss why voting is an important action in a democracy
  • Discuss additional forms of political involvement: campaigning for a candidate, engaging with interest groups, participating in political demonstrations, blogging about candidates and issues.


Text – American Government: Continuity and Change, 2006 Edition (Karen O’Connor and Larry Sabato), Chapter 13.

Articles (NOTE: The three articles with asterisks are essential)

    • * “Nonvoting Is Not a Social Disease”(Robert DiClerico and Allan Hammock, Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics, 1989)
    • * “The Problem of Nonvoting” ”(Robert DiClerico and Allan Hammock, Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics, 1989)
    • * “The Mystery of Nonvoters and Whether They Matter” (Michael Kagan, The New York Times, August 29, 2000)
    • “Push to Expand Voter Rolls and Early Balloting in U.S.” (Ian Urbina, The New York Times,  November 7, 2008)
    • “Telling Americans To Vote, or Else” (William Galston, The New York Times, November 6, 2011)
    • “Election 2012: Study: Youth Vote Was Decisive” (Kevin Robillard, November 7, 2012, POLITICO.COM)

Taking Action

Days 16-17: Political Action

  • Students will either campaign for an Oakland mayoral or California gubernatorial candidate or ballot measure. 

NOTE: While in 2014 the project revolved around mayoral and gubernatorial races, it can easily be adapted to other election years, for example, the 2016 presidential elections and a look at CA and Oakland ballot propositions/measures.

Also, note that I provided alternative assignments for students whose religious beliefs prevent them from engaging in political activities. These students could work at food banks or tutor students at any grade level they chose. They could also suggest other alternatives, with my approval. 

Prior Knowledge

  • Concepts
    • Democracy
    • Political Participation
  • Vocabulary
    • Secret Ballot
    • Phone Baking
    • Canvassing
  • Tech/Comm. Skills
    • Use of Internet – blogging
    • Use of Internet – Facebook
    • Public Speaking

Steps in the Lesson

For the 2014-15 school year, the civic engagement lesson is the following:

Students may either

1.  Work in the 2014 gubernatorial election, either for Jerry Brown (Democrat) or Neel Kashkari (Republican).


Summer Blog – Each prospective student must do Internet research over the summer on Brown and Kashkari and post the following on the class blog:

  • For Brown: one accomplishment, one shortcoming as governor
  • For Kashkari: one important issue he supports
  • Respond to one peer post

In Class

A.  Discuss the major differences between Brown and Kashkari (based on Internet work)
B.  View and discuss the Brown-Kashkari Debate


  • Teacher views debate in advance of showing it to students, ferrets out three issues: in this case, bullet train, California water needs, and education. Teacher makes sure to fact-check the candidates’ arguments before coming to class.
  • Teacher provides a T-Chart that students use while watching the debate to note where the two candidates stand on those three issues.
  • Teacher leads a class discussion centering on these three topics, directing students to respond to each other’s understanding of the candidates’ positions and injecting corrections when misunderstandings arise. This should be a dialogue between the teacher and students but also between students and students. In other words, this discussion should not be teacher-centered.

C.  Provide links to students so they can participate in either the Brown or Kashkari campaigns:

  • Oakland Democratic Party Headquarters (to campaign for Brown) 2135 Broadway, Oakland, CA.  510-272-2703
  • Alameda County Republican Party Headquarters (to campaign for Kashkari), 1039 MacArthur Blvd, San Leandro, CA. 510-638-3414

2. Work in the 2014 mayoral race for one of the 15 candidates running for mayor 

Provide students with presentations from several mayoral campaign organizers and require students to use the Internet to make contacts with other campaigns. This year students chose to work for mainline candidates like Libby Schaaf, Courtney Ruby, Dan Siegel, Rebecca Kaplan, and Jean Quan.

3. Work on a November 2014 California and/or Oakland Ballot Measure, such as Propositions 1 (Water)  & 2 (Rainy Day Fund) or  FF, which raise City of Oakland minimum wage to $12.25 per hour.

In Class

A. Discuss the pros and cons of Propositions 1 and 2.

B. Discuss Pros & Cons of the minimum wage 


Pamphlet – League of Women Voters “Easy Voter Guide,” Propositions 1 & 2


“City of Oakland Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, Measure FF, (November 2014)”

Internet Site

Provide the students with the following URL so that they can connect with an organization that is promoting Proposition FF.

Lift Up Oakland Events

Inform students of Lift Up Oakland events – dates, times, location

For options 1, 2, & 3, students would perform the following tasks: 

Types of Work

  • Phone Banking
  • Door-to-Door Canvassing
  • Campaign Office Work
  • Dissemination of political information to peers about candidates or ballot measures via Facebook or through a Blog 

Time Investment

Two weeks in October-November, 2014 for 2 hours per week

Work must be documented by obtaining a signature from campaign authorities

Assessment and/or Extension Ideas

Students will be assessed on two written assignments:


  • A journal that documents their political activities, including the following:
    • The dates and number of hours worked
    • Preparation necessary to engage in the work
    • The type of work that was done, for example phone-banking
    • Proof of the campaign work done (a signature by a campaign official)


  • A two-page paper encompassing the following:
    • Two positive experiences gained from campaign work
    • One negative encounter as a result of engaging in campaign work
    • Whether or not the political work engaged in promoted participation in the democratic process
    • Whether or not this engagement will propel further political or other civic work in the future

Student Reflections

Here is a sampling of the student reflections completed within a week of the November 2014 elections:

“I again saw how even a small fraction of one’s time can make a difference, as many Oaklanders came to the campaign office on week nights to make calls, address letters, or drop off food for the volunteers. Anyone can make a difference, and I will try to make more of a political impact in the future. Because of this new understanding and my increased confidence, I think I will work on future political projects.”

“It opened my eyes to how many other ways there are to contribute to the government besides voting”

“There was nothing more satisfying than when I and my partner would start talking to a passerby and them him transition from relative indifference to, at least, a creeping desire to vote…in the coming election.”

“I definitely plan to work on campaigns or maybe for ballot measures in the future. I am really interested in U.S. politics, and it was exhilarating to be so closely involved in the real process of a campaign. I really appreciated two things I got from working on the campaign: increased political awareness and a sense of camaraderie. I found myself a member of the political community working toward a common goal.”

“My volunteering has enhanced my connection to the democratic process because I now have a deeper understanding of how much work goes into running a campaign and winning an election. I’ve seen firsthand the impact that volunteers can have, and now I realize I can make a bigger impact than I originally thought. I think that it is my civic duty to participate in the process and even help educate other people about important issues. Because of this, I definitely think I am going to work on campaigns in the future.”

“The fact that Libby won the election for mayor made me feel as if I actually had an impact on her success because I was there for a significant amount of time. In the 30 hours I worked with the campaign, much of that time was spent phone banking or canvassing; I made contact with potential voters and put he name in their minds. There were people who picked up that I convinced to actually vote for her as their top choice.”

End Notes

Common Core

CCSS-ELA-Literacy. RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

Civic Action Criteria

  • Impact on Participants: Did the action(s) support the civic/moral development of those who participated?
  • Effectiveness: Did the action(s) achieve the desired goal?
  • Service: Did the action(s) address a real need and help others?
  • Education: Did the action(s) raise the public awareness or educated others?
  • Sustainability: Did the action(s) lead to long-term change?
  • Historical and Social Awareness: Did the action(s) both build from lessons of the past as well as take advantage of the current context?