How do we inspire students to become actively engaged as citizens? And sustain that engagement? For the first time in my life, I was involved in campaigning during this election. I did data entry for one candidate. (Okay…I hate getting calls from phone banks and refused to be a caller.) My family and I trekked to Iowa twice to “get out the vote” and my husband and I spent a cold, dreary Saturday afternoon canvassing for another candidate. The night before the election, a friend and I drove around in the dark searching for the polling places we’d been assigned to put out signs. By election day I was exhausted, but when my family and I were offered an invitation to go to McCormick Place to await polling results and hear Obama speak, we went.
Every bit of this was an exhilarating experience. And the reading and thinking and constant questioning I had to do was deep and wide and mind-opening – as I studied candidates and tried to articulate what I might say to others, as I kept track of the news and the polls, as I listened to others share their thoughts.
More importantly, my daughter was drawn into the election process. She went with my husband and me to get out the vote – on Sundays when she would usually have been playing with friends. She listened in on our conversations and to stories on Public Radio. She developed vocabulary and understood the discourse of politics in many ways. She learned about the structure of our government – at the national and state level. Amazing. And she became a bit of a social activist as revealed in her explanations of why she would vote for a particular person or with a certain party.
In his acceptance speech, President Obama made it clear, though, that our engagement as active citizens does not end with the vote we cast on Tuesday.
But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.
What I’m grappling with is how do we do this in the classroom? How do we create exhilarating experiences for our students as they learn about the election process and then sustain engagement as a citizen? I think this is an imperative. This means more than a school-wide election for class president. More than a five-paragraph essay on the life of a president. Even trickier is how do we do this without feeling like or fearing that we are swaying our students to think like we do or to take the view of a particular party. How do we help them develop the identity of an engaged, informed citizen? (I think “informed” is the key word there.) How do we nurture their sense of agency regarding their ability to make change happen in their communities?
I’m contemplating this.