Social studies teacher Merrell Frankel's lesson was moving along smoothly. Within half an hour, her 40 eighth-graders at Berendo Middle School near downtown Los Angeles had learned about the duties of a California governor and the people's right to a recall under the state Constitution.
Then the recent lesson delved into trickier territory: Voting machines and court decisions.
Frankel asked if anyone could explain such developments as the vote by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to postpone the election, which was reversed on Tuesday, and the question of whether the case ultimately would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The students fell silent, looking perplexed.
"Raise your hands if it's a confusing question," Frankel said.
All hands shot up.
"It's OK," she said. "You're not alone."
Even veteran educators like Frankel, recently named Outstanding Middle School Teacher of the Year by the National Council of Social Studies, find it challenging to explain California's recall election in class.
Still, many instructors are seizing on students' fleeting fascination with the political process, or at least their knowledge of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, for a rare opportunity to teach history as it unfolds.
"It's great for stimulating civic education," Frankel said. "This is a terrific teaching tool."
Lanisha Dent, a social studies teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, is also using the recall effort to teach about the political process. She admitted that most students' curiosity had probably been piqued by the actors, the porn star and oddballs on the ballot. But "that's OK," she said, "because that's a hook."
With the campaign season matching the start of school earlier this month, middle school and high school teachers throughout California began revamping social studies assignments and swapping recall lesson plans on the Internet.
As a result, students are writing mock campaign speeches, studying sample ballots like good novels, and reviewing vocabulary words such as "deficit," "frenzy" and "discontent." They are holding mock elections, watching videotaped political debates and studying newspaper coverage.
Teachers are fielding such questions as: "What are special-interest groups?" and "What is touch-screen voting?"
For Frankel's eighth-graders, the recall fits nicely with state teaching guidelines on the American Revolution, voters' rights, the founding of the United States, and its Constitution and principles.
Frankel said her students were not quite sure what the election would mean to them and their families, but "they're intrigued by the number of candidates," she said. "They think it's circus-like."
In class, she held up a sample ballot with the 135 candidates' statements on it and began flipping through the pages.
"How many candidates are there?" asked Cindy Velasquez, 13.
"Look at this," Frankel said. "I'm still turning pages."
After class, Cindy said she felt she was getting a better grasp of the issues and contestants' positions. "Every time I turned on the radio, there's a new candidate. It's confusing," she said.
Edsel Velasco, 13, said he had concluded that a recall was fair under the Constitution because "we're citizens and we have that right, like Ms. Frankel said."
The controversial Florida vote recounts and court decisions in the last presidential election led to similar classroom discussions across the country, said Chuck Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, a Calabasas-based nonprofit organization that promotes government and political studies in kindergarten through 12th grade.
"Every political controversy is grist for the mill in the classroom," he said. "The recall makes you examine historically why it went through in the first place, what are the implications and what are the political undercurrents. And that's something the students need to learn, discuss and debate."
In a recent discussion in Charlene Sampson's government class at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach, students slammed Gov. Gray Davis, blaming him for a sour economy. They complained about the lack of jobs, higher car registration fees and soaring university fees.
Then they were assigned to write a campaign speech addressing how they would solve those problems. Their solutions included raising cigarette and alcohol taxes, turning off stoplights between 12 and 5 a.m. to conserve energy and taxing rich corporations and strip clubs.
But after many of the ideas were shot down in a classroom debate, students realized there were no easy solutions.
Sampson later asked the students: "Do you think the governor of our state should be put out of office?" Most said they favored the recall, but a few dissented.
"No, because sometimes people make mistakes," said Charles Smith, 17, explaining his support for Davis.
Michael Denman, a social studies teacher at the California Academy of Math and Science in Carson, said he has had many "teachable moments" since the recall campaign began.