WENHAM — A dozen high school students watched the video on the projector screen zoom in on the eye of an innocent little girl and then cut to a mushroom cloud of smoke.

The content, though shocking and unsettling, was part of a campaign ad from then-incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, who was challenged in 1964 by Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona.

Watching the ad, and many others from various U.S. elections throughout the decades, is part of what's called the "Drama of Politics" class at the Academy at Penguin Hall, the new, all-girls private Catholic high school at the former Mullen Communications headquarters.

Regardless of their own political beliefs, students are asked to analyze the ads for content, according to Julie Calzini, the school's director of curriculum and faculty development. They're also learning how to determine valid sources, and analyzing how politics are portrayed to the public.

All of this work and discussion culminates in a class project — students must create their own political ad and consider what to include, such as symbolism, knowing the target audience, and visuals.

After watching the ad featuring the little girl, students learned the context — Goldwater at one point said, "He would not be opposed to dropping bombs on North Vietnam," explained integrated humanities teacher Doug Healey.

Next, students watched a second ad featuring the girl, now a middle-aged woman, speaking about the worrisome political climate and how the use of nuclear weapons remains concerning. This ad came from the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In the discussion that followed, Nora Jasaitis, a first-year student, brought up Republican nominee Donald Trump's statement that he wants to be "unpredictable."

"You can't be unpredictable," she said, noting that leading a country means access to many resources, including dangerous ones.

"Why would he want to be unpredictable?" asked Ali Souris, a sociology teacher, to which several students spoke of not wanting some foreign countries to know the United States' next move.

Not all ads have the same amount of substance, students learned. Lila Caplan, a first-year student, pointed to a John F. Kennedy ad that repeated the candidate's name several times, meant to get it stuck in a viewer's head.

"There was no actual facts there until the very end," she noted.

Though students confidently gave opinions on the ads and displayed some of their views on politics, only a few are actually eligible to vote. The course is open to both underclassmen and upperclassmen.

"I think a lot of them are frustrated that they aren't going to have a say, but I think they feel very involved," Healey said after class. "I think they really feel how high the stakes are."

The class, he said, is more about an ongoing conversation about politics and issues, critical thinking, and helping students build a foundation for their impressions of politics. 

"I think they all came in here with strong opinions because everybody has those now, but now they're much more thoughtful," Healey said.

Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at amacneill@salemnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill. 

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