cristina kumka/ staff photo
Middle-school students at Poultney High School created their own posters detailing the issues and questions on both sides this coming presidential election.
Vermont teachers are taking a moderate approach to a potentially divisive yet pertinent subject — the upcoming presidential election.
The state lacks guidelines on how to teach both the Democratic and Republican sides of the issues judiciously. So Poultney High School social studies teacher Liz LeBrun is taking the same approach she has taken for at least three mock presidential debates and elections — giving kids information to read and question, then letting them choose a future leader on their own, based on their own values and beliefs.
“We don’t give students our opinions,” LeBrun said of herself and teacher Linda Paquette.
LeBrun co-advises the school’s Student Council with Paquette, who through her informational text class, is teaching seventh- and eighth-grade students about the electoral college and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, while LeBrun focuses on educating kids in the upper grades on the subject.
“I want students to make up their own minds,” LeBrun said. “I want them to develop their critical-thinking skills based on what they know and come up with reasoned positions. I’ve stopped students when they begin spouting or bashing one side or the other and told them to give me specifics.”
Poultney High is a beacon for the student-led election process, which happens on the same day voters go to the polls in their communities every four years.
Four years ago, some students dressed as Uncle Sam or wore red, white and blue to mark the occasion, but nearly all rushed to LeBrun’s room to cast their ballots.
A Vermont study from 2007 shows 72 percent of high school seniors said they participated in at least one mock election in their school careers, making the student-election process prevalent in most Vermont schools.
During the last presidential election, social media took hold at Poultney High and many students took to Obama as a celebrity offering change, electing him in a landslide.
LeBrun said she’s told students this year that what they see on Facebook aren’t always the facts.
This year is somewhat different, with students focusing their view of the candidates on a number of issues that mean something to them, such as the rising cost of college.
LeBrun said the issues of most concern to students in the school are gun control, abortion, marriage equality, health care and the economy.
While the votes cast aren’t counted in the official results, they are complied by a national association to see how young voters would swing if they had the opportunity to vote for real before the legal voting age of 18.
Voter turnout among Americans between 18 and 24 was at an all-time high in 2008, but their participation is still lower than Americans of all other age groups, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics presented to Poultney students in the Sept. 3 election edition of Junior Scholastic magazine.
But more than creating a spark of youthful interest in presidential politics, it’s a chance for teachers to take a potentially biased subject and present it in an unbiased, factual way.
For Student Council secretary and senior Kaitlyn LaRose, 17, that presentation brings politics to her level, where she can understand it and care about it.
She said she cares most about how much college is going to cost her and what Obama and Romney are going to do about it.
Six of her 18-year-old peers will act on those concerns for real Nov. 6.
Lebrun has registered that number of students since the start of the school year: first-time voters this coming election.
Kids getting out the vote
Another trickle-down effect of learning presidential politics in the classroom is the effect it could have on the community.
Take Barstow Memorial School, for example.
Seventh- and eighth-grade Social Studies Teacher Bob Myers presented students with a simple fact at the start of the year — more than 400 eligible voters in Chittenden and Mendon didn’t cast a vote in the last presidential election.
The students decided to spring into action this year, by urging locals to register, vote and get schooled on the issues.
The student-led initiative is called Project 100, to try and get 100 percent of residents registered to vote, and Myers has been meeting with the students twice a week since September to support their ideas.
His teaching approach is based on the latest research that shows kids learn more when they are given the opportunity to solve problems on their own.
“There’s some new thought in education about problem-based learning ... the idea is you present a problem to the kids, one they may or may not be able to fix in some way. and it encourages them to think through the problem on their own rather than being told what to think about,” Myers said.
Myers said students were already taught about what it means to be a voting member of society — that it’s the power to change government and enrich the democracy.
Now, they are out in the community trying to remind people of that lesson.
“What we won’t see is the biggest lesson of all, that when these kids turn 18, they are going to all vote and that’s the point,” Myers said.
“I am teaching them to be better citizens and instead of sitting in a classroom and telling them they need to vote, they are learning it themselves.”
Approaching the subject
The Vermont Department of Education does require a teacher to abide by a code of ethics and professional conduct standards to gain and keep a teaching license.
That code addresses criminal activity, such as the prohibition of drug and alcohol use, receiving gifts in exchange for promotions and child abuse.
It does not provide any mention of teacher political bias.
Angela Ross, spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the state has no policy on how teachers should teach sensitive topics like politics or emerging social issues like gay marriage or women’s rights.
Ross said it’s up to teachers and their own professionalism and training to approach the topics so as to not offend, embarrass or influence any students.
Poultney High School has turned to using two magazines: Junior Scholastic for middle-schoolers with the cover headline reading, “Decision Time,” and The New York Times magazine for high-schoolers called Upfront, with the cover headline, “Obama vs. Romney: The candidates, the issues and what’s at stake for the nation — and you.”
In the middle-school edition, the economy, taxes, Afghanistan, energy and immigration are listed down the middle of page 5 with a picture of Obama on the left and Romney on the right.
The points of view of both candidates are listed under the topics next to their pictures.
The middle-school edition analysis leaves out one point of debate — the candidates’ opinions on gay marriage.
The Upfront feature story for high-schoolers adds health care and gay marriage to the list of topics running down the page.
Politics in the home
LeBrun said some students at Poultney do identify with one party or the other, “and sometimes they don’t know why.”
A 2009 Vermont study showed that while 95.5 percent of students who participated in mock elections at schools said they would vote in a presidential election, even more said they would because they had been to the polls with a parent — about 96 percent.
The study was conducted by then-Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and is called “The Impact of Civics Education on the Attitudes, Behaviors and Disposition of Youth.”
The study also showed students who went to a polling place with a parent felt they were better informed about politics than a student who had participated in one or more mock election programs.
LeBrun said teachers are faced with addressing what students hear at home and what they align their values with, “but it’s hard when they can’t articulate why they believe what they believe.”
Senior student LaRose said she was looking more for answers this year from the candidates, rather than Obama or Romney trying to convince her to take a different position on something she believes in.
LaRose said if she had a vote, it would depend more on what hasn’t been addressed.
“My whole class is going off to college. We want to know how those candidates are going to help us,” she said.
“I think with Romney, most of the time he focuses on job growth and the economy, and didn’t mention student loans,” she said.
“I know Obama has addressed the issue.”
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