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Using the State of the Union Address as a Civic Learning Opportunity

Explore resources for educators to help students understand, analyze, and respond to the upcoming State of the Union.

The presidential primaries officially kicked off on February 3rd with the Iowa caucuses. While youth under the age of 18 weren't eligible to participate (except for 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election), we know that many young people of all ages talked about the candidates and the issues that were also on the minds of caucusgoers. How can we capitalize on young peoples’ interest in pressing topics like healthcare, immigration, and the environment, and channel it into engagement and a commitment to political participation over the long term? 

The 2020 State of the Union (SOTU) address, which took place the very next night after the Iowa caucuses, was just such an opportunity. Many promising practices in building youth engagement involve youth participation, and the SOTU, especially at the beginning of an election cycle, provides many options. 

During the 2020 election cycle, CIRCLE will be continuing to research and catalyze conversations about how media engagement and media creation can be a way to create entry points for a wider diversity of young people into elections. The SOTU is a great opportunity to focus on what young people’s experiences and perspectives are, what youth see included in media coverage (or not), and what young people believe their community, state, nation should be and do. 

The curated list of tools below from civic and media organizations around the country includes lesson plans, resources, graphic organizers, and activity ideas for teachers and other educators to use with students before, during, and after the State of the Union. The list starts with opportunities for ways that young people can research and provide their perspectives by creating media, but also includes some background materials on the SOTU:

Youth Perspectives

  • Soliciting Students’ PerspectivesThis resource teaches students how to plan for and record on-camera video interviews with their peers, with specific directions for the roles of Interviewer, Interviewee, and Camera-Person. Use the full guide to help students engage in the process, but switch up the prompts so that classmates are learning about their peers’ reactions to the SOTU and/or sharing their assessment of the state of their local community (in which case viewing the SOTU would not be required). For use: middle/high school; post speech or at any time
  • A Visual State of the UnionThis resource teaches students to create personal self-portraits with a persuasive message. Use the full guide so that students learn the basics of good photography and of persuasive communication, but modify the prompt: ask students to pretend they are giving a speech about the state of their community or country. Invite them to draft bullet points or short paragraphs about their main arguments. Then, instead of writing the speech, ask them to choose 1-3 of their main points and visualize them through photography. (SOTU viewing not required.) For use: middle/high school; at any time
  • Call to ActionThe SOTU is all about sharing a vision for improving our nation. Invite students to join in the spirit of the event by learning how to create memes or GIFs that call on members of their local communities to engage in civic action. For use: middle/high school; at any time

The Speech and its Media Coverage

Background Lessons

  • History of the SOTU: (The CHOICES Program at Brown University)This is an older but still useful resource that includes an introductory video to the SOTU, a detailed timeline of SOTUs throughout history, a guided worksheet for students to analyze past presidents’ speeches, a graphic organizer to help students assess this year’s SOTU, and an optional extension activity. For use: high school; internet required; pre/during/post speech
  • Brief Primer and Guide (National Constitution Center): This resource offers good information about the history and purpose of the SOTU, suggested lesson plans for class periods before and after the speech, and a template for students to create bingo cards to use as they’re viewing the SOTU. For use: middle/high school; pre/during/post speech

Additional Resources