Election Education: Lessons in Democracy

An election, any election, has its share of teachable moments. But a presidential election, particularly this one, has even more. American history will be made whichever party takes the White House.

North Carolina voters heading to the polls this November, will not only choose a president, but also a governor, one U.S. senator, all 13 North Carolina members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and all 170 members of the state legislature. And that’s just to start.

Teachers across the Triangle are working to bring the democratic process into the classroom. And with the many resources available, families can extend the learning and discussion into their homes as well.

Making educated choices

Wanda B. Moore, a mentor teacher at Merrick-Moore and Y.E. Smith elementary schools in Durham, remembers taking her own children to the polls with her when they were younger.
“The biggest thing was to show them as citizens we have the responsibility to vote,” she says. “But before they do that, they need to learn about the candidate so they can make an informed decision.”

In the classroom, that can translate into students following current events in the newspaper leading up to the election or having a mock election for the class.

Parents can get involved, too, she says, through age-appropriate discussions at home, but also by letting their children vote on things like what to wear to school. And they should be sure to follow the election results, she says. Taking advantage of books on the topic is also a valuable tool, as are online resources such as www.pbs.org.

“Literature is a good way to get children learning about the voting process,” says Moore, who taught first grade before becoming a mentor.

Taking a stand

Angela Terry, a third-grade teacher at C.C. Spaulding Elementary School, also in Durham, says she will talk to her students about the importance of voting and of exercising that right. To make the process more concrete and less lofty, her students may practice their persuasive speaking by campaigning for their favorite meals before a class vote. “That’s something children can relate to,” she says.
They’ll also get a lesson in why negative campaigning is a bad thing and why they don’t need to put down anyone else’s meal choice.

More advanced students can discuss issues that are important to them, possibly the environment, health care or the war. Terry says she might ask students to write three things they’d like the candidate to change, then monitor the news to see what the candidates say and keep a journal on it.

While the election is historic, Terry says the more important lesson to children is how to pick a candidate based on their stand on the issues.
“It’s important to teach them it isn’t a popularity contest,” she says. “This is an important choice.”

Getting involved

Lynn Pearce hopes parents will follow Moore’s example and take their children to the polls with them. As executive director of Kids Voting Wake County, Pearce works to get young people involved in the political process. The organization, which has chapters across the state including in Durham, emphasizes “informed citizens and the responsibility of voting to sustain democracy,” Pearce says.

Kids Voting offers an online curriculum for grades kindergarten through 12 at www.kidsvotingwake.org with lesson plans that can be applied across a variety of subjects, she says. “It’s not just for social studies, but math teachers and language arts teacher can use this curriculum, too,” Pearce says.

The site also includes links for older kids to help them connect as young activists. Students are encouraged to take what they learn and discuss it with the adults in their lives.
“We hope the kids and the parents become informed about the candidates and the issues,” she says. “Talk about how the issues affect the family — their family — and which candidate fits their needs.”

Private high schools can invite Kids Voting to register eligible students for their first election. Voter registration forms are available to public school students at their high schools. Then, on Election Day, all children can go to the polling places and “vote” at any of the county’s precincts where Kids Voting volunteers are available. Younger participants can even use ballots with the candidates’ pictures. While it might not impact who gets the job, the results are tallied to reflect the preferences of the pre-electorate.

Pearce says the hope is “when they turn 18, they will register to vote and they will know how important it is to vote.”

Aleta Payne is associate editor of Carolina Parent.

Winning Books for an Election Year

There are plenty of good books available this election season, from easy readers to tween- and teen-appropriate fiction. The following are some options, loosely grouped by subject, but with plenty of crossover appeal.

Presidential kids

Talk about the limelight. Try being the son or daughter of the commander-in-chief. It might not have been their choice for a parent’s new job, but these children — real and imagined — have the responsibility of being First Kids.

President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly said of his oldest daughter, “I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” In the charmingly illustrated What To Do About Alice (Scholastic, $16.99), Barbara Kerley writes and Edwin Fotheringham draws the early life of the spirited Alice Lee Roosevelt, who became known as “the other Washington Monument” thanks to her indomitable spirit.

Tired of the confines of a White House life and the scrutiny resulting from his mother’s presidency, Sam makes a bid for freedom in The Great White House Breakout (Dial Books for Young Readers, $16.99). Funny, yet poignant, the picture book suggests what it might be like for a little boy who wants a regular life.

While Sam is fictional, the children and teenagers featured in First Kids: The True Stores of All the Presidents’ Children(Scholastic, $7.99) are very real. From George Washington’s stepchildren right up to the Bush girls, the book provides pictures, biographical information and trivia, such as a list of presidential hobbies.

Talk about teen angst, pity poor Vanessa Rothrock, who tells her story in As if Being 123/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! (Knopf, Delacorte Dell, $15.99). The reasons her mother shouldn’t run for president range from the typical, “I need her way more than the rest of the country,” to mature beyond her years: “I don’t want anything bad to happen to her.”

Meanwhile, Sameera “Sparrow” Righton might argue that polls, focus groups and political spin have gone a little too far. Adopted from Pakistan as a 3-year-old, the daughter of a presidential contender finds herself being molded into something she’s not in First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Speak, $7.99) by advisors who believe changing her image will help her dad get elected.

Trivia and tidbits

Many different personalities have occupied the White House, and several books offer interesting details about the men who have been president as well as other colorful bits of Americana.

When someone launched a cabbage at William Howard Taft, the presi-dent quipped, “I see that one of my adversaries has lost his head.” President William Harrison might have saved that cabbage for dinner. He was so thrifty, he walked to the market each morning with a basket over his arm. So You Want to Be President? (Philomel Books, $9.99) is full of such interesting observations about the lives of these important men and their families.

See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes and the Race to the White House (Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books, $9.95) also chronicles some of the high jinks and low jinks of presidential politicking in a surprisingly kid-friendly way.

The story of one presidential pet allows for unexpected insight into the world of his owner in First Dog Fala (Peachtree Publishers, $16.95). The Scottish terrier was the beloved pet of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Fala’s story is also the story of an extraordinary presidency.

And for those tired of electioneering but still interested in fun U.S. facts, how about United Tweets of America (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $17.99)? This cleverly illustrated story about the 50 state birds also includes plenty of trivia about the places they represent.

Unexpected Candidates

Sometimes candidates come out of nowhere. Or at least not where you’d expect. The subjects of these books are excellent examples.

The United States might not have had a female president, but Grace is determined to change that. First stop is her school’s mock election in “Grace for President” (Hyperion Books for Children, $15.99). When it appears all of the boys will be voting for her male opponent, Grace decides to focus on being the best person for he job.

Tired of chores, homework, school, and really, truly tired of timeouts, young Luke makes a bid for high office in “President Pennybaker” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.99). But sometimes having a grown-up job isn’t as cool as it sounds.

Learning about the skills the job requires convinces Oliver that he’s got the perfect person for the upcoming election in “My Teacher for President” (Puffin Books, $6.99). With bright illustrations and simple text, the book charmingly points out the similarities in the job descriptions to run a classroom or a country.

Animals get their chance, too. In “LaRue for Mayor: Letters from the Campaign Trail” (Scholastic, $16.99) and “Otto Runs for President” (Scholastic, $15.99) disaffected dogs enter the political fray.

For older readers, there’s “Popular Vote” (Point, $8.99). The teenage daughter of the local mayor mixes it up by running for student council president, but since she’s a teenager, it’s got to get more complicated than that. And it does.

History

Understanding the past is a hugely important when looking toward the future. All of these books help accomplish that.

Richly colored and detailed illustrations distinguish “Uncle Sam’s America” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $15.99) in a book respectful of both the country’s history and its diversity.

The same can be said of “Americans Who Tell the Truth” (Puffin Books, $7.99) which pairs stunning portraits of famous Americans by Robert Shetterly with quotes that might not have made them popular with everyone but which underscored the freedom and responsibility to speak them.

Jumping back to the American Revolution, “Independent Dames” (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.99) tells the often-neglected stories of the women and girls who helped fight the British.

For lovers of pop-up books, “America: The Making of a Nation” (Little, Brown and Company, $19.99) offers plenty of flaps to open. Unsealing the final envelope reveals a replica of the Declaration of Independence.

And in a book for older readers, “The Hope Chest” (Random House, $16.99) offers a timely reminder that American women have had the right to vote less than one hundred years. Although fictionalized, the book includes a number of real people and historically accurate events.

— Aleta Payne

To volunteer with Kids Voting locally, visit
www.kidsvotingwake.org or www.kidsvotingdurham.org.

More online resources
Here are suggestions from Common Sense Media for some additional places to look online for kid-friendly election information:
Ages 8 and up: www.scholastic.com
Ages 12 and up: www.factcheck.org
Ages 14 and up: www.rockthevote.com