A classroom of students posing with a "ballot box"Photo courtesy of Minnesota Civic Youth

Future voters

Preparing students for a lifetime of civic engagement

On the morning of Election Day in Minneapolis, North Community High School teacher Courtney Bell, ’14, and current OLPD doctoral student, handed her ninth-graders copies of a 1960s-era voter literacy test, the same kind used to suppress the African American vote in southern states. With ten minutes to correctly answer thirty questions, many of them misleading, success was nearly impossible.

Many in the class were frustrated. Bell says it’s an emotion that has followed students through much of the presidential race.

“There’s a lot of tension and a lot of fear amongst the black community in general with this election,” she says. “It can be painful to engage in it, but I realize that I do have the obligation to my scholars to at least give them information about what is happening now politically and what has happened in the past.”

Courtney Bell
Courtney Bell, North Community High School

Bell wanted the voter literacy test to immerse students in the past as a way of exploring some of the country’s current dynamics.

“If I teach them the history of things, they’re able to more readily understand what’s happening in the present,” she says.

In the classroom of seventh-grade social studies teacher Sarah Cowhitt, ’11, at Susan B. Anthony Middle School, students sketched out maps of the electoral college, waiting until it’s time to walk downstairs and vote in the school’s mock election.

Near the auditorium—which is a real local polling place—ballots, booths, and stickers from Kids Voting Minneapolis await the student voters.

“We have always tried to set up our mock election booth near the actual polls, so students can get up close to the political process,” Cowhitt says. “Seeing things take place helps our newcomer [English language learning] students get a better idea of what U.S. voting is like. I hope that it makes them feel included in our democracy and makes them feel like this is something they should do when they can legally vote as adults.”

Sarah Cowhitt
Sarah Cowhitt, Anthony Middle School

In Moorhead, Minnesota, the students of Isaac Lundberg, ’13, got up-close and personal with the election as well. Lundberg’s eighth-graders voted for local candidates in class but made their choice for president along with the rest of Horizon Middle School in a school-wide event.

For Lundberg, it’s important to expose students to the democratic process early and in an interactive way.

“Kids really do want their voice to be heard, whether it’s in politics or school policies or the way their classroom is run,” he says.

Kelly Koppang, Horizon Middle School’s media specialist and coordinator for the in-school election, split the building up to match the makeup of the United States’ electoral college. She says it takes about five classes just to represent California.

With an election cycle marked by polarization and tension, both Koppang and Lundberg emphasize that the process is worth much more than the outcome for these students.

“Our real goal was less about who they would vote for,” Koppang says. “Our goal was more to demystify the process, [so] when they’re 18 they’ve done this before.”

Then and now

Bell, Cowhitt, and Lunberg agreed that this presidential race is unlike anything they’d seen before, and the effect on students is noticeable.

Cowhitt pointed to the especially loud hallways on Election Day, where she noticed a spike in a certain kind of student energy.

“This is how twelve- and thirteen-year-olds manifest stress,” she says.

When Bell asked how many of her ninth-graders had strong feelings about this election, hands shot up. Students mentioned that they felt scared or anxious on Election Day.

“They’re very sensitive to the things being said by candidates,” Bell says of her students, who have been learning about the political strife and voting rights struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. “It is so reminiscent of the past that I think a lot of my scholars are uncomfortable with it.”

Students voted at Anthony Middle School on Nov. 8.
Students voted at Anthony Middle School on Nov. 8.

This election’s extremes have made it hard for Lundberg to teach about debate technique and regular election practices, he says.

“I try to convince kids that we don’t have to stoop to the level of political discourse we see on the news,” he says, though it’s sometimes easier said than done. “It’s hard to convince an eighth-grader that we need to be better than what we see on TV.”

Inflammatory comments from politicians and the media can make kids feel unsafe, the teachers say—especially for students of color and those from immigrant families.

“It is clear to me that many of my immigrant, minority, and female students are stressed out about the election outcome,” Cowhitt says.

With increased tensions comes an increased importance of creating safe space inside school and equipping students with information that can help assuage fears or at least provide them with a bigger picture of current events.

In her classes, Cowhitt has been emphasizing the power of legislative checks and balances—how the three branches of government work to ensure nobody has too much power.

Bell says building classroom community and teaching about similar situations in the United States’ past can help reduce election anxiety.

“My scholars find a lot of peace in history—they really do,” she says. “It’s catharsis for them.”

Beyond Election Day

Regardless of current dynamics, teachers are firm in their belief that voter education and civic engagement is a crucial part of schooling.

At the heart of her work, Cowhitt says, is teaching students the goals and rights of American citizenship.

“It’s the whole purpose of teaching social studies,” she says.

Students voted at Anthony Middle School on Nov. 8.
After voting, students received stickers from nonprofit Kids Voting Minneapolis.

Lundberg says he’s looking forward to the discussions his class will have after the election is over, when they can examine it from a more complete perspective.

“My hope is that we have some valuable reflective conversations after, both based on the process and the results,” he says. “And that we can analyze both those aspects and take something away in the end.”

Bell looks forward to the day her current students can make their voice heard on the ballot. Despite the current climate, she still finds civic education meaningful and essential.

“It means a lot because I know that the best voter and citizen is an informed voter and informed citizen,” Bell says, “and I feel that one cannot thoroughly be informed unless they understand the history of the society that they live in.”

Giving kids a voice

About 50 percent of kids in the United States grow up in non-voting households, according to Minnesota Civic Youth, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization. Many educators feel a responsibility to equip their students with knowledge and enthusiasm about elections.

Minnesota Civic Youth is a statewide organization that organizes a network of teacher resources, at-home activities, program coordinators, and Election Day voting experiences. It serves more than 50 districts in the state, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Hopkins, Anoka-Hennepin, St. Louis Park, Brainerd, and many others.

Shakita Thomas, vice president of the Minnesota Civic Youth board of directors and a doctoral student in CEHD’s culture and teaching program, says the organization helps students recognize the power that comes with civic engagement. When students participate, it builds a sense of civic identity that an last a lifetime.

“It helps young people see that they do have a voice,” says Thomas of Minnesota Civic Youth’s programming. “They do matter, even though they can’t legally vote.”

The organization’s statewide programs have grown from 45,000 student participants in 2012 to more than 125,000 this year, says executive director Amy Anderson.

A seventh-grade voter filled out his ballot inside a Kids Voting booth.
A seventh-grade voter filled out his ballot inside a Kids Voting booth.

Minnesota Civic Youth grew out of Kids Voting St. Paul, a local affiliation of Kids Voting USA. The national organization was born in 1988 when two Arizona businessmen found themselves in Costa Rica on that country’s election day. The two were shocked and impressed to see many Costa Rican families dressing up to go to the polls together for a nearly 90 percent voter turnout in comparison with the United States average of about 60 percent. They created Kids Voting USA, a national nonpartisan civic leadership program, which came to Minnesota through local efforts a few years later.

Kids Voting Minneapolis, for example, since 2004 has provided Minneapolis Public Schools with civics lessons, activities, and Election Day events aimed at empowering youth ages 5-18 and fostering the next generation of active citizens and voters.

Fostering family conversations around voting is one goal of the program, according to Kathleen O’Neill, ’09, now at Hale Elementary in Minneapolis. O’Neill supported Kids Voting for several years in her role as parent liaison at Pillsbury Elementary School. She was impressed by the things she heard kids say during the process.

“Voting makes kids feel grown up,” she says.

Read about more people in the CEHD community who are Making Democracy Work.

Story and photos by Ellen Fee except as noted | Fall 2016