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.”
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.”
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.