Election provides lessons in democracy

Posted October 27, 2008 12:53 p.m. EDT

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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, a U.S. senator, all 13 North Carolina members of the U.S. House and all 170 members of the state legislature.

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

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.

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

Angela Terry, a third-grade teacher at C.C. Spaulding Elementary School 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.”

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, emphasizes “informed citizens and the responsibility of voting to sustain democracy,” Pearce says.

Kids Voting offers an online curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade at 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.”