Classes stress research, critical thinking, duties of citizenship
Second-graders seem to have a well-defined idea of what’s important in a candidate: “It doesn’t matter what you say you will do; it matters what you do do.”
That was the conclusion of a second-grader at Methow Valley Elementary School after she voted for a mayor and town planner in a mock election last week.
The second-graders were setting up their own towns, choosing who would run the towns and where to put things like bakeries and performing arts centers.
The contests for mayor and town planner each drew half a dozen young candidates. The aspirants made speeches about what they’d do to help the towns thrive. The races were very close — some classes even had candidates give follow-up speeches for a run-off.
Second-graders learned to make informed choices by ranking their classmates’ platforms and speeches — not just voting for their friends. The successful candidates promised to help solve people’s problems and to listen to people in the town.
Others offered creative ideas like having color-coded streets and sidewalks to keep cars and pedestrians safe. “It was hard to choose,” said one young voter. “It would be horrible if the teacher just chose the mayor,” said another.
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow and a town planner talked to the classes about how government works. Ing-Moody explained that she listens to people but doesn’t make all the decisions herself.
The second-grade unit — part of the International Baccalaureate theme called “How We Organize Ourselves” — has evolved over the years. The first time they did it, all the kids in the class voted for themselves, said teacher Jonathan Stratman.
Stratman’s class used a match-up between dogs and cats as favorite pets to learn about the popular vote and the electoral college. After the popular vote went overwhelmingly to the dogs, the student elector picked cats. “That seemed less fair,” said a classmate.
Although the lessons were very general, some young students were reminded of current events. One compared the results of the dog-and-cat race to the last presidential election. “Sometimes that’s what happens, like with Donald Trump,” she said. “Hillary got more votes.”
Stratman, who’s taught elementary school for years, said it used to be easier to have discussions about actual candidates and issues. “I think the climate has gotten more hostile — it’s a reflection of the families,” he said. “Now I tread lightly and look at how the process works — and keep it general.”
In fact, one or two parents expressed concern that the second-grade unit would focus on controversial issues, but Stratman said they learn what an election is, how it’s conducted, and how to be an educated voter.
The teachers’ guide for the mock election puts the process in context: “Talking about political issues can be tough, but it’s important the next generation of voters learns to respectfully discuss the civic choices we face as adults,” it says.
Older students who participated in the mock election voted on actual ballot questions. Seniors in David Aspholm’s advanced-placement class in comparative government and politics discussed the initiatives, including one about gun control and another proposing additional training for police officers in deescalating violence, first aid and mental health.
Aspholm’s students approached statements in the voters’ guide for and against the initiatives with educated skepticism. One student zeroed in on a statement written by opponents of the gun-control initiative that claimed it was “bankrolled by a handful of Seattle billionaires … concerned with pushing failed California-style gun control.”
“Who are these Seattle billionaires?” she asked. The class talked about how they could research the laws in California to know if that statement was valid.
“Should the government require something that should be common sense?” asked Aspholm. “Is it OK to buy a gun and just take it out and start shooting” without knowing what you’re doing? The students noted that anyone born after 1972 has to take a hunter-safety class to get a hunting license.
But students questioned whether training alone would make a difference. “People who’ve shot up schools already knew how to use guns,” said one.
“The students always raise good questions about initiatives,” said Aspholm. They want to understand the issues before they trust the claims. “That’s what you really want as a citizen — you want them to do more research first.”
Students also looked at the proposals to tax fossil fuels and to require additional training for police officers. The initiative about taxes on soft drinks got attention, in part for its tricky wording. “If you agree with the initiative, then it prohibits the tax,” said Aspholm. “Be careful you understand what it says before you vote.”
The mock election — an educational exercise organized by the Secretary of State with different options for kindergarten through 12th grade — uses only the initiatives and races like president, governor and senator, that apply to all voters. The mock election helps fulfill state requirements in social studies and civics.
One student who voted — for real — for the first time this year wasn’t persuaded by Washington’s approach to party affiliation. Although candidates indicate only the party they prefer — which doesn’t mean they’ve been endorsed by the party — it’s hard to ignore a label of Democrat or Republican next to a candidate’s name, he said.
Aspholm also conducted the mock election with his and eighth- and 11th-graders. The Liberty Bell results were mixed and not necessarily indicative of the views of the students, because many were away on a college tour, said Aspholm.
Although most students supported taxing fossil fuels (which lost in the real election), two classes rejected the tax. Firearms training got fairly wide support, with 56 students in favor and 35 against. Enhanced training for police officers got the strongest backing, with 73 students for the initiative and just 11 against it. Both the firearm and officer training measures passed by wide margins in the real election.
“This is much less a representation of how students feel about certain issues and hopefully more of an introduction and initiation into the experience of voting — what it is like to be a citizen and vote,” said Aspholm.
“We’re trying to give them tools to make good decisions,” said second-grade teacher Hana Baker. “We use that throughout the year to make decisions together in class.”