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Chalk Talk: Presidential politics for young people

  • Kevin Hodgson



Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Among the many disenfranchised populations in this year’s United States presidential election? Our own students.

And if you believe, as I do, that decisions and policies enacted in the present have a ripple effect many years down the road, these young citizens with no voting rights — unless you happen to teach high school seniors with early birthdays — have little recourse and very few ways to shape the political dialogue of our country’s election cycle.

Yet a developed civic life is a key cornerstone to an engaged citizenship, and as educators, we owe it to our students to bring elements of the electoral world into our classrooms. How we do that, and to what level, depends on the age of your students, the atmosphere of the community itself, and your own willingness to find a way to dive into the tangled threads of presidential politics.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), along with the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, has long been eyeing “Civic Responsibility” as one of the tenets of the state’s Curriculum Frameworks. These frameworks guide curriculum development at local school districts (and, for better or for worse, shape standardized testing).

In a draft of a DESE plan to push the theme of civics beyond the traditional social studies curriculums, and into other disciplines, policymakers explain:

“To be college and career ready and prepared for civic life, students must also possess the knowledge, intellectual skills, and applied competencies that citizens need for informed and effective participation in civic and democratic life.

“They must also acquire an understanding of the social values that underlie democratic structures and practices. Civic knowledge, skills, and competencies can be obtained in a variety of settings and ways, including in the classroom, across content areas, through service-learning, discussion of controversial issues, student government, and extracurricular opportunities.”

So, how do we, in this volatile election year full of headline-grabbing quotes and differing political positions, help our young people to navigate the morass of the election landscape?

One way is to involve them deeper in the issues, and there may be no better project now underway than Letters to the President 2.0 (https://letters2president.org/ ), an initiative sponsored by the National Writing Project and Educator Innovator.

Geared primarily towards middle and high school students, Letters to the President 2.0 is an initiative that offers professional development ideas for teachers — webinars on various topics took place and those conferences are all archived and available — as well as practical lesson plan ideas.

But most importantly, there is now an open, and free, publishing platform for students to post writing, videos, audio, images and other media for a national, and global, audience on topics connected to the presidential election.

Students have the next president as their audience, be it Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or any of the other third party candidates. (This project is called Letters to the President 2.0 because eight years ago, a similar project ran, in a partnership between NWP and Google.)

Topics of published pieces at the site already run the gamut from environmental policies to race relations to equity in schools.

The Letters to the President 2.0 publishing platform is only for students aged 13 and up, due to federal restrictions on content hosted on the Web by children, but even elementary teachers can gather up ideas and strategies for discussions and projects about the presidential race.

Some parameters to consider are neutrality — keep your own political positions as invisible as possible so as not to sway the opinions of your students — and respect of differing perspectives, as long as they are backed by sound reasoning and supporting facts.

Of course, given the heavy push into argument writing in the latest Massachusetts English Language Arts standards, the US presidential race provides ample opportunity for students to choose topics that interest them, dive into research with a variety of media, formulate a written argument with claims and counterclaims, and perhaps even debate each other on the merits of the issues.

Perhaps, our own students can become a model for the conversations unfolding on the political stage in the weeks before the November elections. One can only hope.

Kevin Hodgson teaches sixth grade at the William E. Norris Elementary School in Southampton and is the co-director for outreach with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.