Hold Your Own Ice Cream Election!

Use ice cream to represent Presidential candidates in this mock election.

By Judith Smith Meyer


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With talk about presidential elections everywhere you turn (often heated talk), elementary learners are keenly aware that a presidential race is in the works. And the American electoral process is complicated. Most children have been led to believe that majority rules is the American way: each person casts a ballot and whichever side gets the most votes, wins. Many times they experience this in class or at home and it’s called democracy.

Voting: Old School, But Not Out of Date

I remember going into a voting booth as a small child with my mother. She was carting me around on her errands and the League of Women Voters was one of our stops. With fewer people staying home with their children and most likely voting while the kids are at school or in daycare, or even possibly voting by mail, the chances that children are involved in the process beyond overhearing talk radio, political ads, TV news, or dinner table conversation, are slim.

However, young children are very much interested in how the whole thing works. Employ a best-practices approach here: While the process (electoral system) is complex, keep the content level manageable to make the process more accessible. We do this all the time in teaching. And we can do it to make sense of the electoral process by holding an ice cream election!

Collaboration: Common Core Standards for Teachers!

I’ve seen this unit work best when a grade level PLC works together so that all the third grade classes, for instance, or all the 2/3 combinations, participate. They are most comprehensively engaged in the process from beginning to end, but the whole school can get in on the voting action with a touch more collaboration among faculty and administration. And the learning will be even more authentic when greater number of learners are involved. The Common Core requires learners to speak and build meaning collaboratively. It might be complicated and painstaking, but teachers can do their best work by working together on projects like this. By modeling and practicing what we require of our kids, we gain their respect, and develop as educators in ways that will benefit us and our charges. Work as far in advance as possible to make a learning unit like this run smoothly and heighten fun for everybody.

Begin with the Primaries

Primary elections can be held in your room and in the classrooms of the teachers with whom you are collaborating. Invite learners to nominate their favorite ice cream flavor in class. As a class, discuss the options and hold a vote. Independent voters can still write in their candidates. Even the most esoteric Ben & Jerry's flavor deserves a chance to be represented on the ballot. Since this is only a fifth grade unit, only the fifth graders will vote in the primary elections. This mirrors the party system. Each class will vote for its candidate flavor:

  • Mr. Pringle’s room might have a majority vote for mint chip.
  • A majority of voters in Ms. Gonzalez’ room might prefer cookies ‘n cream.
  • Maybe good old vanilla takes top honors in Mrs. Singh’s room.
  • Mr. Nguyen’s class favors rocky road.

A little stuffing the ballot box may be necessary if too many classrooms come up with the same nominee. It’s best if each participating class chooses a different flavor, but this is not required. (Distract the United Nations elections monitors during this part of the process, if needed, to get a balanced ballot!)

On to the Convention

Following the primaries, conventions will be held for each flavor. The teacher of the class that chose rocky road, will host the convention for rocky road. Here’s an opportunity to make room for some authentic choice in your learners’ day. They can attend the convention of whichever flavor they support. I have experienced this and it can generate an incredible amount of energy, just like a real presidential party convention! I have heard second and third graders chanting “Mint chip! Mint chip! Mint chip!” when their party leader got them going. I have seen them making campaign buttons (someone had to dig the button maker out of the storage closet to do this) for chocolate. I have seen artful handmade campaign signs to wave in support of cookies ‘n cream. And, no kidding, I’ve heard kids singing “On Top of Vanilla” while playing handball at recess.

Embed the Media

Have someone print primary election results and report on the conventions for the school newsletter or website. Screen news clips of recent convention coverage during class and see if you can find kid-friendly convention reports in print (TIME for Kids?) as models for how they might address the ice cream primaries and conventions in school-wide media. Small campaign volunteer teams can visit classes and the office to pitch their candidates and ask for election day support.

Debate or Town Hall Meeting: Let the Flavors Speak for Themselves

If your administration and faculty are in support, you could host a debate. Choose a moderator, or a moderation team, develop open-ended questions to help the population know where each flavor stands on the ice cream issues, and have a small group of presenters speak on behalf of each flavor at the debate. Make it an assembly. If you have an active parent body who could volunteer to scoop ice cream midday, hold an ice cream social in which citizens of the school can taste each flavor. (Have the PTA solicit donations of each flavor from local supermarkets.) Give learners a punch card to indicate that they have tasted a flavor. And let each voter decide for him- or herself by sampling each candidate. In the end, the whole school will vote in the general elections and you want an informed electorate!

Polling Place: Mr. Takaya’s Room

For election day, provide every teacher at the school with a stack of voter registration cards. Have students design them and make copies. Voters throughout the school provide their names and use their room numbers for an address. They can bring these with them to their polling place on election day. Assign polling places by grade level to tables hosted by the classes who are learning about the election process (For example: All 6th graders will vote at Mr. Takaya’s room. Or kindergartners and first graders will vote outside Ms. Hanley’s room). Have your learners act as polling place workers: they can check voter registration cards for completeness; match the cards against a class roster to ensure repeat voters are prevented from corrupting the process; hand out ballots, and monitor ballot booths. To replicate the American voting public, hold the election during recess or lunch break. That way, some voters won’t bother to show up and you can reflect on what that means for the process. See how the percentage of active voters at your school compares to the numbers of Americans who vote in presidential election years (which hover around 50%).

How Complicated Do You Want to Get: Electoral College or Simple Majority?

At this point, depending on the grade level of your learners, you might incorporate the concept of the electoral college. It may be tricky, but you could have each class hold a different number of electoral votes. (Classroom population numbers are probably pretty even since class size is contractual.) Assign varying electoral votes to different classes to demonstrate how certain states hold more sway in elections. If Mr. Hughes’ class is California, its majority winner of chocolate chip will have an advantage over Ms. Garcia’s winner of caramel cone (though who could argue with caramel cone?) because the electoral votes awarded to Ms. Garcia’s class might mirror how many Vermont gets.

And the Winner Is…

Have your class tally up the results. Discuss how many voters participated and what this means for the democratic system you are simulating. Graph results by class and post where they are visible schoolwide. Once all the votes are counted, and verified by a second party (Get the kindergartners and first graders involved in this part to reinforce their math curriculum), determine a winner. If you have a local ice cream company in your region, see if they’ll donate enough of the winning flavor to celebrate with the whole school at lunch the next day. Or, again, send parent volunteers out to get donations. If necessary, make some calls to supermarkets in your area so the all your citizenry can celebrate the victor.

Thanks and credit to the second/third grade faculty at Open Alternative School in the Santa Barbara Unified School District for their innovation, inspiration, and collaboration to make ice cream elections part of the curriculum.

Incorporate Election Learning Into Your Curriculum:

Elections and Voter Turnout: Math Curriculum

Learners make graphs to convey information about voter turnout in presidential elections. This resource makes a cross-curricular connection between math and social studies by situating the textual information in mathematical terms. It contains several links to information (and political cartoons) about voting, turnout, registration and more from the 2008 presidential elections.

Dear Mr. (or Ms.) President

Now that your class understands the presidential electoral process, get them directly involved in their democracy. They investigate and articulate what is most important to them and write a persuasive piece to the future president. Full writing process is built into the resource.

Connotation: Bridging Elections and the Common Core

Strengthen your learners’ critical-thinking skills and position them to explain their learning and knowledge in the Common Core paradigm with a look into campaign ads. They reflect on diction and interpret campaign ads from the 2006 elections. To apply what they learn, class members analyze the campaign of the candidate of their choice. They develop storyboards for positive campaigns. It will be easy to adapt this resource to the current runs for office.