For as long as I can remember, I felt voting was an incredibly important piece of being an American. Registering to vote was not a question, it was happening and I was lucky to vote for the first time in 1992 – the holy grail of first time voting experiences – a Presidential election. Since then I’ve voted in countless elections and registered to vote many times as I can’t seem to commit to any one address or state for very long. In each location, I spent a considerable amount of time in the classroom helping students to understand what voting is, what participating or not participating means, how to get registered, what voting day is like, etc. Ahead of a conversation that will be held later on today, I’d like to outline a few things that have worked in my classroom over the past decade and a half (has it really been that long).
Ideas for getting students more interested, engaged and active in the democratic process:
- Election Forum – Back in my very first teaching job in Wellsville, KS I helped students organize a community wide election forum event that recruited candidates to take questions in a public forum. In addition, the students produced a booklet that outlined the main platform and biographical information for each candidate running in the 1998 election. In addition, they did all the communicating with the campaigns, production of the booklet (which was placed at the bank, post office and gas station in town), vetting of and asking of the questions during the forum. We also know that any good community event has food, so it was an ice cream social as well. To this day, one of the most stunning examples of what students can do when allowed the room to do it.
- Offer extra credit to go and see candidates speak. Anyone who has been in my class knows that I rarely give out extra credit, but going out to campaign events is an interesting part of the political process. One of my favorite moments was watching the Secret Service approach 5 of my HS students (all boys on the FB team) to ask for help in repositioning the stage prior to the arrival Bill Bradley at the local Kansas City airport. They were beyond speechless and respectful. To get the extra credit, the students needed to turn in a one page written reflection on the experience, the next day. Every single one of those boys brought in some of the best writing they had done all year. Doing REAL things matter.
- Invite the official from the city/county that is responsible for registration to speak to the students about what to expect in the registration process and then in voting. In addition, ask the official to specifically address what they students should be doing to ensure they can vote at college, or absentee at their home address.
- Weave current events and the election into the daily/weekly routine of the class. The students need to start early to pick apart the rhetoric from the real conversation. This is not something that just happens once someone turns 18. This ‘crap detection‘ takes some serious time to get the hang of and students love being in the know and wise in their consumption of media.
- Citizenship/Civis Homework – Students need to attend more public meetings and events where decisions are being made that affect their future. For the past 4 years, SLA students were assigned quarterly Citizenship Homework: 1st Quarter – Voting Day Interview, 2nd Quarter – Attend a public meeting, 3rd Quarter – Volunteer Work, 4th Quarter – Free choice of any of the previous three options. The point of this homework was for students to actively participate in their communities, become aware of policies and procedures that govern those interactions and reflect on their own future roles in those spaces.
- Although part of the previous bullet point – let me assure you that having students go to the polls on election day and interview people is a fabulous idea. The process and all is a whole ‘nother blog post, but if it is at all feasible in your area have the students AT the polls. One of the barriers to voter participation is the fear factor of looking stupid or doing it wrong. Having students enter that space and see the process when the stakes are low is key. This works.
As educators, we are in a spectacular place to help bring awareness to students and empower them in this process of participating in the democratic process. To waste this opportunity means that we do not value an active and informed citizenry. Let’s move this goal up, in the long list of priorities we have for the classroom. It matters.