While the country is deciding between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the students at Germantown Friends School are preparing to cast votes of their own. First graders are choosing between T-Rex and Stegosaurus for class mascot. Middle School students are voting for eighth-grade candidates who are skillfully campaigning to win their votes. And Upper School students are studying the history of elections in the United States as many seniors are registering to cast their ballots for the very first time.
“The election itself is a teachable moment,” says Jeremy Ross, head of the history department, “and since we are training not future historians, but future citizens, I want the students to pay attention to this election.”
The twelfth graders in Ross’s U.S. History class are drawing on their studies of the Constitution and the presidency to inform themselves about the current election. “It’s better for the future if you understand the past,” says Caryn Miller ’13, who will be voting for the first time come Election Day.
For a class assignment, the students are writing two editorials—one advocating for the Romney/Ryan ticket and the other for Obama/Biden. “I want to challenge them to look at things outside of their comfort zone,” says Ross. “This assignment helps them channel their own thinking and allows them to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes.”
Michaela Krauser ’13 was very involved in the 2008 campaign and says, “It’s exciting to do the volunteering but, this time, also cast the vote.” As classmate Sami Aziz ’13 eloquently puts it, “Voting is a fundamental right as an American citizen and it’s my way of participating in a democracy. I’m eager to be able to exercise that privilege.”
Meanwhile, in the Middle School, the students are running their own election. “We are simulating the 2012 election on a much smaller scale, using the Middle School, GFS and Philadelphia as our campaign battleground,” says eighth-grade history teacher Aaron Preetam. “I wanted to get the entire Middle School involved and excited about the election.” However, he couldn’t find a lesson that taught students both about the election as well as the process, “so I developed my own,” he explains.
Walking through the Middle School halls is like entering a campaign headquarters. Someone randomly shouts over the din of the morning rush, “Vote for the equality party! Rights for all!” Another equally enthusiastic voice rises from the crowd, “Vote Idealist Party! More air conditioning! Less homework!” There are twelve parties in all, comprised of a candidate, running mate, campaign manager, speechwriter, fundraiser, graphic designer and publicist; together they decide the issues that their party stands for.
The candidates are all competing for the four dollars of fake money given to every Middle School student and teacher to fund a campaign. One party appealed to constituents’ sweet-tooth by offering free root beer floats in the lunchroom. “I learned that politics is much more about money then I ever knew,” says eighth-grader Nick Dahl. “I think that’s a flaw in our political system,” he adds.
Down the hall, sixth graders studying the Italian Renaissance are running a mock election between Lorenzo de’Medici, aristocrat and philanthropist, and Girolamo Savonarol, a monk who criticized the de’ Medici and the Pope for living lives of luxury while ignoring the poor.
The students develop characters such as a nun, painter, butcher or noble, and will deliver speeches supporting their candidates before voting. “They see that the issues then are similar to what they are now,” says sixth-grade teacher Janet Kalkstein. However, the students can be rest assured that some things have changed, and in our democracy they will not face the fate Savonarol met for speaking his mind—being arrested, tortured, hanged and burned.
In Susan Shechtman’s second grade, students are registered to vote, informed on the issues and have gotten the result of the primary in the race between storybook characters Mr. Bossy and Mr. Nosey. While running their own election, they are also learning about past presidents. They bake different presidents’ favorite cookies, and unanimously agreed that James Buchanan’s favorite, a cookie from Pennsylvania called “Apees,” was delicious!
“My kids can sing the presidents in order,” shares Shechtman proudly. And as they sat in front of their painting of the White House, with cutouts of Obama and Romney hanging over their heads, the entire class burst into song—not missing a beat or a president.
Next door, the first graders are voting for a class mascot. The primaries set up a race between Bob the T-Rex, who promises to be a sliding board for the kids at the playground, and Selma the Stegosaurus, who vows to give the students more opportunities to eat lunch outside on warm days.
First-grade teacher Cheryl Pinkus said, “We teach what a party is. That people have different ideas. Why we need a government. That we have a democracy, as well as what it is and how it is different from other countries.” According to these first graders, a president should: care about the homeless, have a sense of humor, make food less expensive, save animals and make peace treaties.
Whether voting in their first national election, running a mock Middle School election or picking a first-grade mascot, the students at GFS are learning and thinking about politics, history, government, democracy and, most importantly, “they are learning to care about what happens in our country,” concludes Pinkus.