The following lesson was posted on a blog written by Ed Realist, “a teacher at a Title I high school who usually teaches math, but every so often jumps at the opportunity to teach US history. Ed has credentials in math, social science, and English.”
I have kicked off my planned US History curriculum and on one day’s experience, it’s going gangbusters. I decided the students would best grasp the significance of the electoral college if we began with the recent election–give them a frame of reference as we then look back.
First, I gave them a copy of Article II, section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment, explaining that the elections we’d be reviewing would use both the original and amended text. But the big takeaway I wanted them to get for the first go-round was: Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.
This was new information–well, more accurately, it was relevant information, something they’d clearly been wondering about. When we got to the text about the electors meeting to elect the president, I played that Martin Sheen et al video.
“These actors were trying to change the electors’ minds. As we just read, if no candidate receives more than half the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. So you can see they didn’t have to change everyone’s minds, just enough to push the vote below the halfway mark.”
“And they’re Democrats?”
“No. The House is controlled by Republicans. I have to say I never quite understood the logic of this effort.”
“Why do they keep repeating everything?” Elian asked.
“They must think we’re stupid.” Bart observed.
“I think they did it for artistic effect. But let’s move on. That’s how the president is actually elected. So now lets see how many electors each state gets. Who knows how many Senators we have?”
The guesses were all over the place until I asked for the names of our senators. Then they all figured out it was two.
“Right. Two for each state. Each state, no matter how big or small, gets two senators. And since we have 50 states, we have a total of…..” (I always wait. Are they paying attention? I get 100 back pretty quickly.) “House of Representatives works differently. The House, for reasons we’ll discuss later, assigns representatives based on population. But about a century ago, Congress froze the number of seats at 435.”
“Good question. We’ll explore that later. For now, I just want you guys to get an understanding of the rules on the ground.”
“So every state gets two electors, no matter what, right?” asks Pippa. “Because they have two Senators.”
“Yes, good. They actually get three, no matter what. They elected two senators and one representative, so three electoral votes.”
“That sucks,” Eddie observed. “They only get three people to represent the state.”
“Actually, that three is a good deal. Let’s just take two states: Montana, with a population of about a million, and New York, with a population of 20 million. So New York is twenty times bigger than Montana. Montana gets 3 electoral votes. Any guesses as to how many New York gets?”
“Well, if it’s twenty times bigger, they should get sixty.” Anita.
“That can’t be right, though,” observed Priya. “New York isn’t the biggest state, and if it has 60, then how many does Texas or California have?”
“Very good.” and I passed out the worksheet I’d cobbled up. One side was an image of the country with electoral votes by state, the other was a table looking something like this.
“Wait. New York only has 29 electoral votes? Holy crap.”
“Yeah. Now you’re starting to see. New York only gets nine times as many electoral votes, despite having twenty times as many people.”
“That’s not fair to the big states!”
“It might feel that way. However, there was a lot of reasoning that went into that decision. We’ll be talking about it later, and you can judge. For now, here’s a simple task. I want you to mark the map with the winners, as many as you remember or want to guess. Then, on the back, put your guess and then the electoral vote total in each column. I don’t expect everyone to know all of them. I just think it will be a good discussion, get you seeing how much you know or remember. Then I’ll help you fill it in.”
I was pleased to see kids filled in a good bit of the map based on their own knowledge. Many knew the South was mostly Republican. They all, without exception, called Florida for Trump. A cheering number was aware that the Rust Belt states had flipped. After ten minutes or so, I brought up the same map on my Promethean [interactive white board] and marked it up with their results, correcting for reality as needed. During the conversation, I added in some tidbits–what the polls in each state had showed, what states Hillary never saw coming, demographic voting patterns, DC’s three electoral votes, and so on.
When we finished marking the map up, Kevin mused, “Jesus. Trump won a lot of states.”
“He did indeed.”
On instinct, I went to a browser and brought up the 2016 electoral results map.
It was a good instinct. The class literally gasped.
“Holy sh**! He won all those states?” Eduardo was aghast.
“Huh.” Eddie, as dedicated a Trump hater as ever existed, had bitterly snarked about borders in an inequalities lesson immediately after the election. I’m hoping he’ll feel less hardly done by in the future.
Here is something I learned: the kids had been told many times that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They understood what that meant. But not until this moment had they ever genuinely grasped the visuals of Trump’s win. What Trump’s win looked like. The map was a huge reveal. Minds weren’t changed, but perspectives were.
“Our Constitution gives voice to all citizens, but through the states. It’s a balance. It’s not always perfect. But it exists for a reason. Maybe this map gives you a sense of why.”
I had an extra fifteen minutes, so again on impulse, I brought up the classic youtube compilation of famous and influential people saying, with confidence, that Donald Trump could never win. I pointed out the lesser known ones, but they got the drift and loved it. I will note they were shocked (and not in a good way) at Seth Meyers’ disrespect. Loud applause at the end. I hit pause and got their attention.
“Here’s what I want you to know: not a single person in that compilation lost their jobs. Well. Except Obama, but his term was up. Every person on TV, acting as an expert. Every comedian. Every politician. You just saw pretty much every famous person in America laughing hysterically at the very idea that Trump might win. And none of them were held accountable. None of the media people who confidently predicted Trump had no chance of winning got fired. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you could easily have assumed you could stay home. Why bother voting? Trump couldn’t win. And when Trump won, these same media folk were all aghast. Then they ran all these stories about devastated people, heartbroken by Trump’s victory. Rarely did you see stories on people who voted for Trump, who were thrilled at his win.”
“I want you to go home tonight, turn on cable news–well, except Fox–and you’ll see all those people you just saw and more, talking about the demonstrations against Trump’s new immigration policy. Trump’s naming a new justice, maybe there’ll be more demonstrations. All the people on TV, many of them who are newspaper reporters talking about their own print stories, will talk about how big the demonstrations are, how meaningful they are, how important they are, how the people are speaking.”
“And when they sound certain. When they sound like experts. When they talk to experts who sound certain. I want you to remember that video. Because then it might not come as much of a shock to learn that 49% of Americans polled support Trump’s immigration E[xecutive] O[rder].”
“Yeah. I get it.” Omar nodded. “It’s like the media only shows people who agree with them.”
“It’s like they don’t even realize people don’t agree with them.” said Amy.
” So if all the cool people hating on Trump, maybe no one will want to, you know, be a d*** who likes Trump.”
“But I do hate Trump!” said Eddie.
“Well, I’d like you to think about using a different word than ‘hate’. But sure. LOTS of people disagreed with Trump. More people voted who wanted Clinton, remember? That’s where we started. ”
“It’s like, don’t be fooled. Don’t think that just because all the famous people think the way you do, that everyone does.” Omar again.
” If you surround yourself with people who think just like you do and never associate with people who don’t, you might lose track of what’s normal. It’s called ‘living in a bubble’.”
“You know,” observed Pippa, “I’ve always thought it was kind of cool that Trump won.”
“WHAT???” Eddie, outraged.
“No, I hate him. I mean, I disagree with him. But now that I see that video, I think it’s even cooler. All these famous people were laughing at him.”
“Yeah, mocking him. Nasty stuff.” agreed Lennie.
“And he went out there and ignored them and took his ideas to the people. And won!”
“I swear to you, Pippa, that’s exactly what I love about this election. I said that verbatim to my advisory. I truly believe that only in America, only with our rules, could someone go out and speak to the country and get the votes needed to win the presidency.”
The bell rang.
Good first day.