What Happens When Kids Engage in a Presidential Debate?

Paul Wright

Paul Wright teaches 9th grade Government/Economics and 11th grade Interdisciplinary American Studies (Viewpoints on Modern America) at Radnor High School in Wayne, PA. He began his career at Mable G. Holmes Middle School in Elizabeth, NJ. He has mentored student teachers, and actively collaborates with his colleagues at Radnor. He was a 2011 Finalist for Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. He is also a co-owner of JumpStart Main Line College Essay Camps. When he isn’t in the classroom, you can probably find him behind a book, on his bike, or losing another argument to one of his three teenagers.

I have been at Radnor High School in Wayne, PA (my alma mater) since the 1999-2000 school year, and each time a major election has come up, I have taken my classes down to the studio to film candidate debates. As far back as the Gore v. Bush presidential debate, we have debated the issues with kids playing the roles of candidates, campaign teams, and members of the press. If I have a kid who is particularly interested in learning the video side of things, they can play a role there also.

Here at Radnor we have the LUXURY of a working TV studio. Kids are a part of RadTV, making projects within school and throughout the community. The Radnor Channel broadcasts local cable and community events also.

This year, the video class which helped film, edit, and produce this activity is run by teacher Drew Krupp, who welcomed our class in as an opportunity to let some of his kids have hands-on experience. They miked us up, ran the board, edited and put up graphics — they were the Broadcast News to our Star turns! The studio is run by a tremendous educator named Mrs. Nikki Krohn, who has collaborated with me on these debates for many years.

Classes here at Radnor are divided into four levels: AP, Honors, Advanced, and College Prep.

The class at work here is of one of my two College prep sections of 9th grade Government/Economics. They spent weeks of class time in the roles mentioned above. They were asked to choose the roles they would like to play and nearly everyone got their first choice. The class is small, and a mix of reading levels, backgrounds, and in-school supports.

The beautiful thing about this project — as you can see from their performances — is that kids of any level can accomplish it.

The Result

Issues Addressed:

  • Climate Change
  • Gun Control
  • Economy

The Debates:

The Assignment

Three MAJOR campaigns going on, and we’re going to jump right into them:

  • Former US Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Tim Kaine (D) are running against businessman and real estate mogul Donald Trump and Governor Mike Pence (R) for President of the United States.
  • US Senator from Pennsylvania Pat Toomey is running for re-election against former US and PA Environmental official and businesswoman Katie McGinty (D).
  • In our 7th Congressional district, Representative Patrick Meehan (R) is running for re-election, and his challenger is LaSalle Professor Mary Ellen Balchunis (D).

Their websites are here:

Presidential race:

US Senate race:

Race for 7th Congressional District:

These races will have a significant impact on our area and — in fact — both local races will be watched nationally to see how they might influence both party balance and possibly control of the U.S. Congress.

How will we be paying attention? Truth is, it will be hard not to, as commercials and news begin to increase throughout the fall. Below are the goals for the assignment. Underlined bullets are work you will be expected to complete for a grade.

Our short-term goals:

  • Monitor the races and see how the incumbents (those currently in office) and challengers portray themselves, as candidates and as people
  • Look into the issues that will be of interest to Pennsylvanians, and the nation
  • Study who supports these candidates, and what their motivations might be
  • Keep tabs on how candidates respond to these issues and events as they occur
  • Prepare to play a role in a formal debate
  • Collect articles and information on candidates in a folder, which will be turned in for a grade
  • Use weekly class time for information-gathering and planning sessions

Our long-term goals:

  • Prepare for a formal debate with each of you playing a role as candidates, campaign strategy team members, or members of the press with well-researched questions.
  • Use the RADTV studio to get a sense of the power of TV in campaigns
  • Write a reflection on the process, preparation, and results of the campaign as well as analysis of your own role in the debates
  • Use information to predict each race, with evidence and references to support predictions

Roles for the debates:

Candidates: You will be expected to speak before the class as the specific candidate. You will know issues after studying them, and being coached by campaign team. You will dress up on the day of debate and will have notes as you debate in front of the RADTV studio cameras.

Campaign teams: Your candidate must be prepped and briefed on several issues which the teams and Mr. Wright will agree to collectively. Your teams will be expected to be able to answer any question the candidate would be asked. One person will be the EMERGENCY CANDIDATE, should something happen on the day of the debate. There will be no surprise questions or “Gotcha” moments in this debate.

Press: You will be expected to research issues which are agreed to by the teams and candidates and Mr. Wright. Questions should show a background of knowledge (people, places, pronunciations, both sides of an issue, etc). You will be dressing up on the day of the debates, and should expect to be on camera when you are asking questions. You MAY pick a political side to come from (conservative or liberal bias is acceptable, and might flavor your questions).

Technology: Possible roles during debate itself, MORE INFO TBA.

Due dates:

Article folder: Portfolio containing at least FIVE articles, all read and obviously margin noted: Friday, October 21st. Must be on paper.

Prediction paragraph: Full paragraph predicting the winner of each election being debated in class, with your predictions and reason why you believe them to be accurate: Friday, November 4th. May be submitted digitally.

Reflection Journal: Typed, two-page journal reflecting on the entire group and debate experience. What did you and your group do well? What could you have improved? How did the debate go? Describe your work in detail and how it contributed to the group as a whole: Friday, November 11 (in case you want to refer to the actual election results). Must be on paper.


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