How Florida swayed my students

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Let no one suggest that teachers lack creativity. Those who teach subjects that are perceived as "boring" are especially eager to enliven their lessons, with whatever resources or opportunities come to hand. Sometimes, however, we have ideas which truly transform the learning experience.

At half-term, 36 of our A-level politics students and four teachers flew to Miami to experience at first hand the American presidential campaign in the pivotal state of Florida. Ahead of us was four days of participating in campaigns, on both sides of the political divide. Voting had already started and the drive to maximise turnout had moved into top gear.

Our first day was spent with America Coming Together, a pressure group which, while officially independent of both political parties, was dedicated to defeating President Bush. After a briefing on how to canvass support without breaching their non-party status, we set off to various locations in Miami with their volunteers to hand out leaflets, and encourage people to vote early and not to re-elect the president.

The next day, at a Republican rally featuring Bush's daughters, some of our students were interviewed by reporters who wanted to know who they supported. When pressed, they said they wanted the Democrats to win. The man who had given us tickets for the event could see his career disappearing as they spoke.

We spent the afternoon with the Kerry Edwards campaign, helping with preparations for the visit of the former president, Bill Clinton, which included "chalking" the pavements to publicise the event. Some shook Clinton's hand after his speech - his first following heart surgery. On the third day, our interviews at the Bush rally were on the morning news. Then we were off with the Republican campaign for the Senate, waving placards on street corners and phoning likely supporters to encourage them to vote.

The students loved the energy and excitement of the rallies, the sign-waving, whooping and hollering, were impressed with the well-crafted, thoughtful speeches, and by the passion and commitment of the campaign volunteers. Most of all, they were struck by the racial disparity of the parties' respective support, with the Republican rally attended exclusively by white and Cuban voters and the Democrat rally dominated by African-Americans.

They left Miami with a large supply of campaign literature, stickers, badges and T-shirts. More importantly, they took with them the memory of the distinctive style and intensity of an American presidential race, something which will stay with them far beyond their A-levels.

It took a lot of preparation, but mainly it required a bit of imagination.

So next time a colleague complains about how restrictive the curriculum is, tell them to try thinking outside the tick-box mentality. We shouldn't be slaves to the syllabus; we should see it as a challenge, an opportunity to think creatively, to make something tasty from a list of rather dry ingredients.

With flights, accommodation and so on, our trip cost pound;500 each.

That's a lot, but I, and the students who went, would say it was money well spent. And not every teacher needs to take their students to the US to show them how their subject works in the real world; there are plenty of original, thought-provoking opportunities closer to home. You don't have to cross the Atlantic to go the extra mile.

William Storey is head of sixth form at Haydon School, Pinner, Middlesex, and principal examiner for Edexcel A-level government and politics of the United States

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