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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Politics: Elephants, Donkeys, and Teens

As the weather cools, discussions of the race to the White House heat up.
By Richard Rapaport

PREDICTION: As the presidential campaign gains momentum, civics and politics will be front and center in the classroom.

Politics, the civic activity often noted for the strangeness of its bedfellows, will surely be showing up in high school classrooms during the 2007-08 school year. Even beyond the quadrennial presidential-bandwagon effect, today's explosive blend of war, contentious social issues, and a closely divided electorate, all whipped into a frappé by the Internet, guarantee that teachers will be acting as both guides and referees as what political wags have called "the silly season" commences. Living in media-accelerated modern America, this perfect political storm will likely kick off with the opening day of class this year.

Teacher knows best that politics can make for nerve-wracking classroom work conditions, particularly in an era when almost any slip of the tongue or tweak of the psyche can make it onto YouTube before the period is even over. "Teachers walk a fine line, always balancing the desire to take a political point of view with the need to appear unbiased," notes Mark Lopez, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy (and former research director of the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement).

Even if you don't go looking for a political fight in your classroom, however, it is likely that this year the fight will come looking for you. Since 1992, when Bill Clinton did a sax riff on MTV, there has been growing recognition that the youth vote can make a difference in close elections.

From 2000 to 2004, voter turnout among those ages 18-24 increased 31 percent, and rose again for the congressional races of 2006. In part, the growth is due to particularly low youth-voter turnout in the past, but also a result of a media effort to register younger voters. The under-30 vote accounts for nearly 20 percent of eligible voters, a figure likely to rise in 2008. "These are voters worth going after," Lopez says, which explains the appointment by Democratic candidate Barack Obama of a youth-vote director and the creation of a "summer camp" to train young workers likely to be in the vanguard of the Illinois senator's campaign.

One observer who feels an accelerating youthful electoral pulse is U.S. representative George Miller, a Democrat from California and chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor (also a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's advisory board). "I have real hope that the 2008 election will build on the excitement that budded in the 2004 cycle and really blossomed in 2006," he says. Miller's hope centers on "people who haven't been engaged in the process in many years, most especially students." He believes that technology, particularly in the form of the Internet, "will play a dramatic role not only in spawning a new generation of activists but also in helping the slice of America that traditionally sits out the elections to feel more connected to the decisions being made on its behalf."

Ultimately, then, what can a teacher do to help foster political interest without becoming overtly partisan?

One possibility is to listen to Peter Petrigno, head of the social studies department at Merrimack High School, in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and the state's 2000 Teacher of the Year. His philosophy of civics education is simple: "We teach, we don't preach." Still, in the first presidential-primary state, Petrigno is in the enviable position of giving ground rules to some well-known political figures. "When I get a call from a campaign, I invite them to come in and talk about the political process rather than their own candidacies," he says.

New Hampshire schools have a powerful social studies, history, and civics program that uses the presidential election as one of a number of linchpins in the curriculum. Students, for example, are required to assemble online election portfolios, and at Merrimack, they research candidates and their positions to help fulfill the requirement. Another notable federal requirement is the commemoration of Constitution Day, the September 17 anniversary of the 1787 signing of America's founding document.

"There is more excitement and energy as the presidential primary approaches," Petrigno says. "However, we still need to be true to our curriculum and help kids understand the role of Congress, town governments, and the state legislature to let them know something politically important is going on aside from the presidential election."

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

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