Teaching for an Active Electorate

By Tosha Tillotson

 “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death.”        

        --Kofi Annan

As a government teacher, my favorite unit to teach is the democratic election process.  In the teaching standards of my state, California, 12th grade students analyze the origin and development of political parties.  They evaluate the role of polls, campaign advertising, and the controversies over campaign funding.  Most importantly, they are tasked with describing the means that citizens can participate in the political process (e.g. voting, campaigning, lobbying, filing a legal challenge, demonstrating, petitioning, picketing, running for political office, etc.)  Now more than ever, these skills and opportunities are of great value to students, but how students are engaged must be meaningful and relevant.  Young people between the ages of 15-25 represent 20% of the world’s population, it is our responsibility to educate them so they can be an informed electorate. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility in teaching American history and government to students as they will be making decisions that will shape our country as we age. It is our duty to teach history and politics without bias (as much as this is possible). Students do not need to know our political party affiliation, but they do need to know the platforms of all the political parties.  They do not need to know how we voted, but they do need to know the importance of their vote and how to register to vote.  With the increase in divisive/poisonous political rhetoric around the world it is more important than ever that we, as educators, show students non-partisanship.  This balanced examination does not need to validate all political perspectives but to present and explore them.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

       --Thomas Jefferson

Students are clamoring for the chance to be active in the election process this year and every year.  Schools across the nation engage in a variety of activities to engage students in the election process, from running “mock campaigns” to bringing in local politicians to speak to students. Educators are often left wondering how best to get students engaged.  Vice President of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Shari Bryan has formulated the following recommendations:

  • Design a program that reflects the priorities of youth participating in it.  Allowing youth to set the agenda builds trust and creates buy-in and ownership.

  • Provide facilitation and training.  Young people have limited substantive exposure to issues and policies. It’s important for them to not only articulate their problems, but also to identify the solutions.

  • Encourage action-oriented activities.  Young people respond much better to active learning than from lectures. Design projects or community activities that allow them to take responsibility; make decisions and learn by doing.

  • Facilitate the connection between youth and political and community leaders.  For many young people, this may be the first time that they have come in contact with public officials or community leaders. Laying the groundwork for an introduction is essential and helps raise the profile of youth and their projects.

  • Work in a multi-party setting.  Multi-partisan activities require young people to work, collaborate, and problem solve with political, ethnic and tribal rivals. They need to learn negotiation and mediation skills, and begin to see one another as young people who share many of the same ambitions and interests.

  • Ensure that 50 percent of participants are women.  Women are disenfranchised in almost every country and face tremendous challenges in breaking into the political arena. Representing over half of the youth bulge, women need to have a seat at the table.

  • Establish buy-in and the consensus of political and community leaders.  Constructive youth engagement in the political process cannot happen without the support and tacit agreement of political and civic elites. Taking time at the outset to address any concerns or objections of leaders will ensure effective programming.

 According to Article 21 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to take part in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.  It is our responsibility as educators to make sure students have the opportunity to engage in the political process.  There are a wealth of resources and lessons on the electoral process.  Some free resources can be found on iCivics.org, where teachers can engage students with interactive lessons and games from topics such as the Constitution to News Literacy.  In addition, news organizations such as PBS offer teachers and students an opportunity to engage in lessons and activities around specific individuals and issues on the ballot (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/tag/election-2018/).  It is the greatest gift to be able to inspire each generation of students to be savvy news consumers and active members in the electoral process.


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The Human Rights Education Imperative

Rationale for integration of human rights education. 

Contextualizing human rights helps students to realize their importance and the effect they have on events in history and the contemporary world, helping them to understand more fully current events as well as work more sensitively cross-culturally, a skill demanded not just by international firms but also in local contexts.  The name Woven Teaching is meant to highlight the idea that certain components of good teaching should be woven through all lessons:  critical thinking, global citizenship, literacy, social responsibility, evidence-based analyses, and human rights.  There are already multiple, important movements to have “art across the curriculum”, “math across the curriculum”, “reading across the curriculum”, as well as the STEM and STEAM movements.  Likewise, social responsibility, global citizenship and human rights are themes that should be included throughout a student’s path to graduation.  What Woven Teaching provides is the means, through curated high-quality lessons, to implement this in classroom teaching.

Responsible citizenry. 

A common understanding of human rights is the basis of civil society and responsible citizenship.  Within a society, this understanding and belief in the value of others is necessary for a peaceful and safe daily existence.  It is an essential part of a healthy, livable society. Moreover, engaged and involved community citizens are more likely to understand the issues of the day and participate in elections, ensuring a more representative selection of government officials and policies.  Without this engagement, democratic institutions can quickly wither and die.  “Silence and indifference to suffering and infringement of rights in any society will encourage this.” They need to be appreciated, nurtured and protected, something that an understanding of these institutions throughout history can illuminate for students.  

    Worldwide, collaborative protection of the rights of all people encourages peace, economic growth, and limits the floods of refugees that result from international extremist ideologies.  Studying human rights can “also initiate understanding of personal responsibilities and the dangers of remaining silent; apathetic or indifferent to the suffering or witnessing of violence to others”. Understanding why mass violations of human rights like genocide happen “enables insightful perspective, and comparative analysis of prejudicial behaviors around the world and how the individual participates either as a perpetrator; bystander or victim”. Finally, “by being aware of early warning signs, we can avert future tragedies. We can understand that the “Holocaust was not an accident in history; it occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately mass murder to occur”, leading to seemingly endless repercussions from the Cold War to blueprints of future genocides, the creation of the state of Israel and the largest wave of refugees in history.

Educational efficacy. 

Critical thinking is an essential skill for responsible citizens.  Contextualization, “to understand the patterns of the past - developing a complex understanding of the how, the who, the where, the when and the why”, can help people understand the complex situations they face in their own time.  “An equality and human rights education is an essential part of high quality teaching and learning. The topical and real-life nature of the subjects can help schools to deliver a balanced, relevant curriculum that helps students to make sense of the wider world.” An ability to work in diverse environments and “simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort”. “Young people need to understand equality and know their rights, to understand both how they should be treated, and how they should treat others. Teaching these topics creates a safe place for students to explore, discuss, challenge and form their own opinions and values.”

Economic success for individuals and states.

The economic benefits of tolerance and appreciation of global human rights have been shown in several studies.  Individuals who are able to work well with others different than themselves are likely to have more personal economic opportunities.  Those who can see problems from multiple angles have a greater capacity to contribute to solving those problems effectively.  Individuals who are more tolerant have higher incomes on average than those who don’t.

    On a larger scale, research across numerous academic disciplines has shown that societies which are more tolerant and more diverse have higher gross domestic products and are more innovative than homogenous ones.  In addition, “a growing number of studies . . . suggest that geographic proximity and cultural diversity—a place’s openness to different cultures, religions, sexual orientations—also play key roles in economic growth”. “Diversity spurs economic development and homogeneity slows it down”. “Findings overwhelmingly suggest that cultural diversity and geographic openness matter significantly to economic development across the board.” “They found that cultural diversity has a positive impact on economic development; “nations that practice discrimination are at a disadvantage”.

The ultimate importance of human rights education.

There are so many humanitarian crises right now that many people start to think that nothing they do matters or can make a difference, and there is just so much suffering around the world that it will never change.  They see the DRC, Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, CAR, Darfur, Burundi, Nigeria, etcetera and feel overwhelmed and powerless.  Moreover, the West, the self-proclaimed bastion of democracy and tolerance, is in many ways in crisis.  There is a lack of faith in elections and news sources.  Europe, Australia and the United States are refusing refugees and cutting humanitarian aid just as the world is facing its largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.  Many are dispirited as verified facts are widely denied in favor of conspiracy theories and growing extremism, hate crimes and hate speech are on the rise and the sinking feeling that the government isn’t really listening to the majority of its citizens.  

    Indeed, this can be disheartening, even more so if there is no historical context within which to understand it, no skills to determine opinion and unjustified assertions from facts, and no awareness that there are multiple internationally agreed upon universal rights that individuals and groups are supposed to be protected by.  However, I believe that working on education about human rights in the United States and Europe will help to raise a generation that will see us all as citizens of same planet and all people as equally deserving of fair and humane treatment.  I believe that human rights education enables students to grow up to be effective, contributing members of democratic society.  I believe it is critical to defending the rights of people at home, and to protect others in far away places, not only because it is simply the right thing to do, but because it will protect us from further crises in the future as humanitarian catastrophes never have only local consequences.  That is my greatest hope.

 - Jessica Bylo Chacon