Election years offer teachers the opportunity to show students civics in action, and numerous teachers have taken up the subject this year. Lesson plans have been a challenge, with some topics and language at the top of the ticket too R-rated for younger audiences.
“We’re not including the presidential race,” said John Hise, an eighth-grade teachers involved in a grade-wide project with more than 230 Escalante Middle School students evaluating candidates, ballot issues and initiatives. “We’re asking ‘What is the value of a vote?’ and ‘How do we educate voters in a representative democracy?’”
Sunnyside Elementary School third-grade teacher Gina Ott and Park Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Beth Brunso check their sources carefully. Ott is using resources primarily from Scholastic.
“We are just reading about who the candidates are and some vocabulary,” Ott said. “I just teach them about how the election process works. I’m not assigning them to watch debates, nor am I talking about character or social media. There are just way too many inappropriate things involved with this election.”
Brunso is using website Newsela, which adapts stories from news outlets such as the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times for younger readers.
“It’s a whopper of an election,” she said. “I’ve told them they have the right to vote, but with that right comes the responsibility to be informed. I’m slogging through material now making sure I understand the issues and the candidates.”
Her students will cast votes for president through Newsela.
“Of course, they have influence from their parents,” she said. “I try to say, ‘Here’s the straight facts,’ but there’s so much social media.”
High school students are within range of voting, so at Animas High School, lessons have included participating in the Colorado Democracy Challenge, a nonpartisan registration drive that led to more than 60 students registering to vote. AHS juniors heard from Fort Lewis College professor of philosophy Sarah Cady-Roberts, who talked about the roots of conservatism and liberalism in the U.S.
“We had several guest speakers to talk with junior humanities classes as we hosted panels of conservatives and panels of liberals to help students get a human experience and face and story behind a political position,” said Assistant Head of School Libby Cowles.
Voter Education SymposiumAfter spending almost five weeks learning about the election, the students at Escalante want to share what they’ve learned by offering a one-stop, learn-about-the-issues symposium to voters, which will be held Oct. 26.
“This year, it’s been so incendiary, so we had to pull back and make it more real world issues,” Hise said. “We split into teams of three, randomly drawn, and while they’re not looking at the presidential candidates, they are looking at seven subjects that are larger issues in the race and all four major candidates’ positions on things like immigration and gun policy.”
The biggest challenge was working with students to get past opinions into a more nonpartisan mode, he said.
The project has an operations team and a data team, and will conduct a short survey of attendees at their symposium, treating it like a science project, making predictions and then measuring results.
“Greens want to take guns from the police,” said Dixon Shropshire, who’s studying the Green Party’s gun policy, and is one of many students surprised by what he has learned. “I didn’t see how police would enforce the law without guns.”
The seventh graders were assigned three local ballot measures, the airport, roads and bridges and 3A School District 9-R tax increases. They are not evaluating the Bayfield School District bond issue.
“We’re discussing the effects if people vote yes or no,” Jacob Fenberg said. “We’re calling it cascading consequences. What might happen, good and bad consequences on both sides. We’re showing what will happen to other people, not just us.”
In the Expeditionary Learning approach Escalante uses, projects are multidisciplinary, so the language arts classes are studying tone of voice, the concepts of ethos, pathos and logos and propaganda techniques, teacher Rob Javier said.
While they’re immersed in their individual assignments, the students have become more engaged in the election as a whole.
“I’m really glad I don’t have to vote in this election,” eighth grader Kimberly Fowler said.
Her classmate Lauren Grindy agreed.
“I’m glad I don’t have to carry around that burden,” she said. “People are so biased, I’m saying, ‘Whoa, where did you read that?’”