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"Don't Boo--Vote!"

Authored By: 
Gabriella Skwara, History Teacher

This week marked the final presidential debate prior to Election Day 2016. In just under three weeks, we will head to the polls and select our next president.

For history teachers, election years provide a wealth of ready-made lesson topics and fuel for class discussions. However the premise has been tested this year, as the election has become increasingly contentious and the political debates have become personal instead of substantive.

Faced with these realities, the election has become a more difficult one to properly address in a classroom setting. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that my role as a history teacher encompasses more than merely teaching about the past. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this election, there is no question that this is a historical election year and one that future students will encounter in their textbooks some day. This fits with one of the ideas that I like to convey to students, that they themselves are historical subjects. With this in mind, I often have students imagine how they would write the history they are witnessing. That can only happen by paying attention to and actively engaging in the present.

Many of our lifelong habits and passions are formed while in high school. At Beekman, we strive to instill a lifelong love of learning in students. Election years provide the opportunity to also shape future attitudes towards voting. It's crucial to realize the personal stake each of us has in maintaining the democracy that so many Americans have fought for through the years. Despite all of the various scandals and the divisiveness within this past year, I am thrilled to see how genuinely students are engaging with the political process and actively seeking information to better inform themselves about the candidates. While most of our students won't be able to vote for a number of years, it's important that they don't feel shut out of the decisions being made.

I certainly owe at least some of my passion for voting to the MTV “Rock the Vote” campaign of my high school years, and its work to increase young people's engagement in the political process. This year, there are new, exciting ways for students to become equally enthused. Newsela, a website that provides current news articles at scaled reading levels for instructional use, is providing teens with the opportunity to be a part of the political process. Through "Students Vote 2016," my classes have the opportunity to experience the voting process first hand by casting anonymous votes for our next President. We will be able to see who "won" our election, and Newsela will release the nationwide results a week before the actual election. We can then see whether America's teens voted along similar lines as the adults did. Hopefully, this taste of the election process will ensure that students go on to be active voters in future elections.

During the Democratic Convention this past July, President Obama responded to hecklers during his speech: "Don't boo, vote!" He then added, "Democracy isn't a spectator sport." Education and learning are likewise not spectator sports, and if our students head out in the world having mastered the ability to form an opinion and then translate it into action, there's nothing they can't achieve, both individually and as a country.