This blog post is a bit different for me. I’m asking for input and suggestions for how to engage our students at Westtown School in West Chester PA in our political election process and have them learn about our system of government.

After you read my initial thoughts, I hope you will provide your own ideas and reactions. I would appreciate your help!

Some background

I started teaching in 1994. Just two years before, during the 1992 election cycle, our school held a mock convention for the party out of power -the Democratic Party. The entire 6th-12th grades canceled classes and organized into state delegates, reporters, and election committees for the five Democratic Candidates.

Five students impersonated Harkin, Clinton, Tsongas, Kerry and Brown. The gym, decorated in red, white and blue bunting, was transformed into Madison Square Garden in New York City. The party platform was argued, planks proposed, amended, rejected or accepted. Floor votes were held and delegates swapped allegiances as an effort was made to select a nominee. It was quite a production.

I missed all of this small d-democracy (and huge organizational effort). In 1996, the next Presidential election year, we decided the educational relevance of re-creating a political convention was not worth the effort. Even then, the conventions had become exercises in speeches — three- and four-day infomercials for the candidates. By the time of the 1996 primaries, the platform was well established and the selection of the nominee a pro forma exercise in staged boosterism.

We opted instead for a primary debate between the Republican candidates Bob Dole, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, Richard Lugar, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander. Students volunteered to impersonate the candidates, put together election teams and prepared for the debate. Other students served on our panel of questioners. We held our own election after the debate to vote on the candidates. We continued in this vein until 2008 when we varied the model again. As the nation headed toward a choice between two non-incumbents, we opted for a head-to-head election between student impersonators of Barack Obama and John McCain. Each candidate had an election committee complete with stump speeches, political commercials and a debate. Everyone from 4th grade to 12th voted.

Now what?

We are in another presidential election cycle and the question becomes: what to do in 2012?

In this season of Super PACs, billionaire purchasers of elections, a deluge of political commercials that make Hurricane Isaac look like a spring shower, and candidates speaking in half and quarter truths, how do we as educators engage our students in the election and provide them with meaningful lessons about the democratic process?

The beginnings of an answer to this question was suggested to me by two very different sources — Smithsonian Magazine and Westtown’s second grade.

The September issue of Smithsonian focuses on design. One story tells of three lone inventors who want to make a better pogo stick. As one of the inventors explained, most people look at the pogo stick and see this limited toy that kids bounce up and down on and then abandon to collect dust in the garage. This, he says, is a “conceptual basin” — and the successful inventor must look at the world beyond the basin to invent, or in this case reinvent, the pogo stick.

My take-away: If we try and replicate the election process as a stock exercise in explaining the electoral college or why all the states’ Secretaries of State begin praying for election landslides right about now, our student’s eyes will glaze over. If we have students impersonate the candidates or debate the candidate’s issues we end up with our own mini-popularity contests in which the vast majority of students do little more than vote in our mock election.

Educationally speaking, we are stuck in a conceptual basin.

Climbing out

My first thoughts about escaping our particular conceptual basin were kindled by an event in our second grade. Last year, our second graders decided to choose a class pet. This was an exercise in small d-democracy. The idea for the pet arose from the group. No one remembers who first broached the idea. But, with gentle guidance from their teachers, the students did in fact choose a pet.

First, they brainstormed lots of possible pets; then they narrowed this long list of everything from dolphins to salamanders to a short list of animals that might be able to live in the confines of their classroom. Over the next few weeks, they focused on research. The students needed to learn all they could about their potential pets and then present what they had learned to their classmates.

Someone suggested that size wasn’t the only concern. Some of the students had allergies, so that became a consideration, as did phobias and what to do with the pet over the summer.

In the end the list was winnowed to two potential candidates, and a winner was agreed upon by the class. Every student had a voice, every student was responsible for understanding the issues and how each pet candidate related to those issues: feeding requirements, student allergies, space needs, vet costs, etc. Rather than a vote, consensus was sought (Westtown is a Quaker School – we don’t do a lot of simple majority voting). The winner was the Guinea Pig.

So I wondered…

Could we take this second grade process and adapt it to 500 middle and high school students? Could we focus on issues rather than people? Issues that matter to these students? And then could we move from brainstorming, to researching, to narrowing down to a single, cogent manifesto from the students to the presidential candidates?

But then what? Do we send the manifesto to the candidates? Submit it to our local paper? And how does this exercise in democracy teach them about our election system? In creating our own process this way, will we have lost the opportunity to teach them about voter fraud, redistricting, voter registration, hanging chads, the electoral college, the Romney/Ryan platform versus the Obama/Biden platform?

Any ideas for me?

I am looking for advice. I don’t want us to do the same old, same old. What ever we do, it has to actively engage the students in a meaningful process that gives them a voice and a visceral understanding of what it means to participate in civic discourse.

What do you think?

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