Kids are Clueless About Politics
To bridge this sad gap, innovative companies step in to teach democracy, elections, civics
Many of our children haven’t the faintest idea about American politics and our election process. They aren’t sure how a representative government works, what powers the Constitution vests and to whom, or even who is in office right now. It’s a sad state of affairs.
It’s scary to hear a group of high school kids try to discuss politics. The basics of the upcoming presidential election elude them.
Case in point: Two Boston-area high school boys — one a junior, one a senior — were asked a few basic questions about an elected state official and an area of the world that’s in the news every night.
First question: Who is the Massachusetts speaker of the House?
“Um … Scott Brown,” laughed the junior, very unsure. (Robert DeLeo is, in fact, the current speaker of the House in Massachusetts.)
Second question: On what continent is Afghanistan located?
Answer (by a senior): “China? No, wait, it can’t be in China, can it? That doesn’t make sense. I’ll go with ‘near China.'” (Close — but Asia is the right answer.)
It’s scary to hear a group of high school kids try to discuss politics. And while they can surf multiple social platforms with ease or play a mean game of Warcraft, the basics of the upcoming presidential election largely elude them. It’s just too boring, they say.
Two companies are looking to change all that. Each offers programs that bring civics into the spotlight and allows kids to develop decision-making skills and a deeper understanding of democracy by making them a bigger part of the process.
If schools are interested in teaching their 5th- to 12th-grade students about election-year politics, they can sign up with Fanschool.org. It's a company that offers an interactive game called "Election Challenge," in which students learn about the process of electing a president.
Students fill out an electoral map, deciding which states will vote red and which blue. Each round is less predictable — so students must use provided resources to make informed decisions.
"Fanschool is like the fantasy sports of school content, offering March-Madness style content," the company's CEO, Eric Nelson, said. Over 1,000 paying classrooms throughout the U.S. — as well as schools in several different countries — use Fanschool's platforms to educate students on civics-oriented topics.
Nelson taught history for six years at North Lakes Academy, a charter school in Minnesota, before starting Fanschool through Kickstarter.
"This all started in my classroom with a game that revolved around geopolitics," said Nelson. "I was trying to get my students to interact more with the news on a daily basis — and then I realized how much I was interacting with news when I was playing fantasy football."
Teachers can design their own curriculum based around the Election Challenge and a curriculum package for teachers that is in the works, said Nelson. "We've put together the very best resources around the web on different topics for kids to make decisions with."
At a K-6 charter school in Pennsylvania, the entire student body functions as an autonomous society, thanks to its participation with Microsociety, a company that engages students in substantive connections between the classroom and the larger community. Penn Hills Charter School outside Pittsburgh has its own currency, its own governing body, and even teacher-appointed judges to resolve conflicts.
"Our students are aware of democracy and how our country is run," Microsociety coordinator and curriculum coach Jessica Zuk said. "We teach them about different types of government. When we actually began our school, students voted to see what kind of government we would use."
"Fifth and sixth grades participated in debates over different topics this year, and they have already requested presidential debates," said one instructor.
The kids are familiar with the election process, said Zuk. "Our school has a president, a vice president, and a speaker of the house. Each grade level has a governor; each classroom a mayor. We offer a good, realistic representation of how our country works."
"Our school opened five years ago, and our special focus was entrepreneurship — that's why we chose Microsociety as our program," said Zuk. "We are focusing on the national election next year. It's a big deal with the kids. Fifth and sixth grades participated in debates over different topics this year, and they have already requested presidential debates. They will research both sides, choose a candidate, and debates will begin. We have our own judicial system with teacher-appointed judges, too. We make sure they relate their learning to real society."
Zuk believes that public schools could use the Microsociety program, too.
"It takes time, which is our biggest struggle. We believe in the value of it, so to us, it's worth it. We just have to be very strategic in terms of our daily schedule."
Daylynn Moore is in fifth grade at Penn Hills and the president of her school.
"I like our micro-society because students get to experience at a younger age the things they will be doing when they get older," Moore told LifeZette. "They can decide when they're younger whether to pursue business or finance or a job with the government."
She added, "I understand how important voting is. And the older kids in our community know not to just pick a friend for elected office, but to pick someone who will represent our school well. Our older students explain to the younger students what qualities to look for in a candidate."
Charter schools are using technology and innovation to educate students about how a real democracy works. In these complicated times, the better educated the next generation, the better — for them, and for those of us who will be dependent on their decisions.
"My opinion is we need a president who will represent our country well, and is willing to put forth their best effort in representing our country, and keep it safe, with a good economy," said Moore.