Pride, passion, cynicism and confusion – that’s some of what I’ve heard recently from people talking about voting. Given national, state and local elections this year, it’s a perfect time for families and educators to discuss this with their youngsters.
Once, as a teacher, I found that some youngsters were worried there could be a war in the U.S. immediately after the 2008 presidential election involving John McCain and Barack Obama. They had watched fiery TV ads criticizing each candidate. They’d also heard news reports about riots in another country immediately after elections. They wondered if this would happen here.
I reassured them that although this country has plenty of problems, one of our great strengths has been peaceful transitions from one president to the next.
Those fears helped explain why it makes sense to start a conversation with youngsters by asking “How do you feel about voting? What have you heard?” Before sharing your own attitudes and ideas, it’s helpful to know what youngsters are thinking. That helps you start with where they are at – and questions they have.
So, readers, how do you feel about voting? Do you feel any of the following?
“Brave people died so we could vote.”
“It’s one of the fundamental freedoms of our country.”
“I doubt whether my vote makes any difference.”
“It’s hard for me to decide who to vote for. Why can’t we have better candidates?”
“I feel so good when I vote.”
After answering youngsters’ questions, I think it makes sense to acknowledge your own — often mixed — feelings.
We can also help youngsters see a larger, broader view of voting in America. Professor Alan Singer of Hofstra University recently pointed out that 2020 is the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This expanded voting rights to African American men (not women — that did not happen for decades, sadly).
Nevertheless, U.S. President Ulysses Grant called this amendment “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
Why would he say that? That’s a great question for youngsters to consider. Todd Beach, a social studies lead teacher in ISD 196 (Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan) told me that ninth graders in the district study the 15th Amendment. Then teachers ask students “to make decisions about which … ideas or powers (are) most significant and why.”
Thomas Kearney, superintendent and principal at New Heights School, a charter public school in Stillwater, described a discussion he recently had with students about the 15th Amendment: Students “noticed that blacks actually had a legislated head-start over women in terms of voting.” Kearney explained that even after the amendment passed, “there were other ways that blacks, primarily in the south, were still disenfranchised like poll tax, grandfather clause and literacy test, but the equity in voting rights had to start somewhere.”
We’re still debating who is allowed to vote. For example: What about people who’ve served time in prison? Must voters present photo IDs?
Great teachers help students understand both past and current controversies. Some teachers encourage youngsters to get involved in campaigns of their choice to gain an inside view.
Singer suggests the Zinn Education Project as a good source of information about voting issues and the 15th Amendment: https://bit.ly/2I4Pq7r.
I also like materials produced by PBS found here: https://bit.ly/2vmL0pH.
Fine teachers like Tom Kearney understand the value of helping students study voting. It’s a great way to understand America’s progress and challenges. — Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: Joe@centerforschoolchange.org.