‘A great time to be a government teacher’: Teaching civics at the midterms

November 9, 2018 | Posted in: High School, Middle Years

As the dust settles from the midterm elections, one of the stories that emerged was the massive turnout of young voters. The Atlantic reported that young-adult turnout “surged by 188 percent” in early voting, compared with 2014, with more than 30 percent of voters ages 18-29 casting ballots on Nov. 6.

That’s a strong showing for a group of voters who typically have the lowest turnout of any age group. But it’s not surprising to Scott Emerson, who teaches Participation in Government at Watervliet High School.

“I’ve been teaching government for a lot of years, and the excitement level is higher than it’s ever been,” Emerson said. “When students come up to you and say, ‘I saw this on the news last night, are we going to talk about it in class?’, you know they’re paying attention.”

Is civics having a moment?

But across the state, some school officials are concerned that districts could be doing more to help students become engaged, informed citizens.

A poll conducted by the New York State School Boards Association found that only about half of the school board members who responded felt that their districts were preparing students to understand the role citizens play in a democracy.

Jonathan Redeker, who teaches social studies and serves as K-12 technology coordinator for the Goshen Central School District, sees room for a stronger focus on civics in public schools.

“We’ve seen the pendulum swing back from English and math to a focus on STEM,” or science, technology, engineering and math, Redeker said, but, he added, “we haven’t seen the same thing with civics education.”

And for Redeker, civics fosters a lot of the same skills that STEM seeks to develop, like critical thinking and problem-solving.

Stumbling blocks

Both Redeker and Emerson also work to ensure that their students are prepared to navigate the bureaucracy that often accompanies civic participation. Both teachers offer their students the chance to register to vote, taking time to explain the voter registration form so that students know what to do.

By necessity, this includes instruction on things like how to address an envelope, Emerson explained, because many of his students have never done it before.

“I even buy stamps, and I bring them in and say, ‘If you need stamps, here they are,’” Emerson explained, adding, “I don’t want that to be a barrier.”

Emerson’s students aren’t the only ones for whom the lack of a stamp might be a barrier. A New York Magazine story titled “12 Young People on Why They Probably Won’t Vote” demonstrated that disenfranchisement, a lack of available information and some very simple stumbling blocks were enough to keep some young people from the polls.

“Most people my age have zero need to go to the post office and may have never stepped into one before,” a 21-year-old New Yorker told the magazine. “Honestly, if someone had the forms printed for me and was willing to deal with the post office, I’d be much more inclined to vote.”

Speaking more generally about basic life skills, Redeker said, “It is a hurdle for young people, to figure out, ‘How do I actually go and do these things?’. I think our school systems are not preparing them for all of these things.”

Making a difference

Redeker and Emerson agree that a major part of their work is to help students understand that their voice matters, and that they can make a difference in the world around them.

“I show them the data,” Emerson said, pointing out examples of close contests from the recent midterm elections.

And Emerson and his students aren’t the only ones looking at the data. Politicians and analysts are taking notice, too.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, called the youth turnout in the 2018 midterms “historic,” pointing to several examples of races where young people’s votes specifically made a difference in the outcome of a race.

Redeker’s 12th-grade Participation in Government students are required to do a civic action project, in which they identify a problem and take action to work toward a solution.

“They’ve done amazing work,” Redeker said, including a girl who published a story explaining her decision to have her baby as a teen mother because of her pro-life values, and a boy who successfully lobbied to have the speed limit lowered on the state road where he lived.

Overall, Redeker said, his students come in passionate about issues, and eager to take action once they understand what is possible.

“When students are told, ‘You should vote,’ they don’t feel a lot changing in their world,” Redeker said. “But if you tell them, ‘Here’s how you can effect change,’ it takes it to the next level.”

Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.

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