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2016 Election Sparks Curiosity and Conversation

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The 2016 presidential campaign has definitely sparked the curiosity of GUS eighth graders. There are 33 students in the class. At humanities teacher Jeffrey Bartsch’s request, every single one of them watched the first debate. The next day, Bartsch found that “each student had a probing question or an astute observation to share. The students became fascinated with the process, and they have continued to be both aware of and captivated by the whole spectacle.” According to Bartsch, the enthusiasm continues to grow. He hopes that this will encourage all of his students to participate in the political process moving forward, and that they realize it is their responsibility and privilege to vote once they turn 18 years of age.

This enthusiasm has led the students to plan their own debate, on November 7. Students have volunteered to play either one of four presidential candidates or one of the moderators (one is focused on foreign policy, one on domestic).  Students must study the candidates’ platforms on pertinent issues and be able to support their stance using specific facts and figures. “The idea behind this, really, is idealism—to encourage students to debate, to listen to one another, and to confidently challenge one another’s statements without criticizing or making it personal,” explains Bartsch.

Parents across the country are expressing concern about having their children follow the election and media coverage, but child psychologists counter that families can use this opportunity to discuss their own values and what’s important to them. Parenting experts, including Dr. Michele Borba, who spoke at GUS a few weeks ago, suggest that teachers use the opportunity to discuss behavior and the importance of being good role models, something GUS faculty and upper school students talk about often. “Students learn about the larger world around them, consider the role that leaders have, pose questions, and engage in thoughtful discussions,” Bartsch observes. “In class, we focus more on the issues than on the candidates, hopefully, helping students realize what’s most important.

After a concentrated study of the US Constitution and the electoral process, the students began work on a term-long project. Each student is focusing on the major-party campaigns in one state, learning all they can and bringing their findings to their peers. Combining the ground-level specificity of one state with tracking the election across the entire country provides the students with a robust examination of election 2016.

The students don’t sit back and wait for information to come to them; they actively and enthusiastically search for it. Online research has been central to the class’s studies. Traditional newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, have robust online tools and coverage, as do magazines such as The Atlantic, The Economist, and The New Yorker. Websites provide vast amounts of content: historical data, polling information, facts and stories, research, electoral vote scenario development. Popular sites include 538.com, 270towin.com, uselectionatlas.org, and nytupshot.com.

In addition, GUS eighth graders are comparing their beliefs directly with the candidates using the website http://www.isidewith.com/. On this site, students answer a series of questions on a full range of specific issues. Their responses are compared to the positions of national candidates, generating a score that indicates degrees of agreement. These tests have led many students to think deeply about their positions on the candidates and how they form their opinions.

The eighth graders will host a school-wide election on November 8. Students who are 11 years of age and older are eligible to vote, and they must preregister to participate in the mock election. Polling stations will be set up in the Nance Room, which will close at the end of lunch time. Stay tuned, results will be announced following the election, when the country knows who the next president of the United States is.

Bartsch appreciates the opportunity a presidential election provides every four years. “This project incorporates not only politics, but also civics, history, geography, cartography, statistics, and speech writing, all of which tie into the humanities curriculum at GUS.  All of these disciplines interact in a spiral—exposing, extending, connecting, challenging—leading students into a deep and personal relationship with the world around them.”