Professional Learning

Politics: Elephants, Donkeys, and Teens

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

September 2, 2007

PREDICTION: As the presidential campaign gainsmomentum, civics and politics will be front and centerin the classroom.

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

Teacher knows best that politics can make for nerve-wrackingclassroom work conditions, particularly in an era when almost anyslip of the tongue or tweak of the psyche can make it onto YouTubebefore the period is even over. "Teachers walk a fine line, always balancingthe desire to take a political point of view with the need toappear unbiased," notes Mark Lopez, an economist and professor atthe University of Maryland's School of Public Policy (and former researchdirector of the Center for Information and Research on CivilLearning 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 beengrowing recognition that the youth vote can make a difference inclose elections.

From 2000 to 2004, voter turnout among those ages 18-24 increased31 percent, and rose again for the congressional races of 2006.In part, the growth is due to particularly low youth-voter turnout inthe 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 candidateBarack Obama of a youth-vote director and the creation of a "summercamp" to train young workers likely to be in the vanguard of theIllinois senator's campaign.

One observer who feels an accelerating youthful electoral pulseis U.S. representative George Miller, a Democrat from California andchairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor (alsoa member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's advisoryboard). "I have real hope that the 2008 election will build on theexcitement that budded in the 2004 cycle and really blossomed in2006," he says. Miller's hope centers on "people who haven't beenengaged in the process in many years, most especially students." Hebelieves that technology, particularly in the form of the Internet, "willplay a dramatic role not only in spawning a new generation of activistsbut also in helping the slice of America that traditionally sits out the electionsto feel more connected to the decisions being made on its behalf."

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

One possibility is to listen to Peter Petrigno, head of the socialstudies department at Merrimack High School, in Merrimack, NewHampshire, and the state's 2000 Teacher of the Year. His philosophyof civics education is simple: "We teach, we don't preach." Still, in thefirst presidential-primary state, Petrigno is in the enviable position ofgiving ground rules to some well-known political figures. "When Iget a call from a campaign, I invite them to come in and talk aboutthe 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 anumber of linchpins in the curriculum. Students, for example, arerequired 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 ofConstitution Day, the September 17 anniversary of the 1787 signingof America's founding document.

"There is more excitement and energy as the presidential primaryapproaches," Petrigno says. "However, we still need to be true to ourcurriculum and help kids understand the role of Congress, town governments,and the state legislature to let them know something politicallyimportant 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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