Students get living lesson in civics this election year

Posted: October 25, 2012

Students in Renee Gilson's eighth grade social studies class are watching a replay of the first presidential debate.

When they laugh at one point, it's not at something a candidate said - they're tittering at a tweet ABC News is running across the bottom of the screen.

Romney in red tie, Obama in blue tie. Really fellas?

A few minutes later, the Pine Hill Middle School students, all around age 13, get serious as they describe what they want the candidates to talk more about.

"Jobs," says Chris Santiago, "because when I grow up, I want to have a job."

Election season, not surprisingly, is geared toward the people who are eligible to vote - adults. They are polled and pulled and proffered information to see whose camp they are in and if they can be wooed to the other side. But how do youngsters learn about the election? What do they think about the race between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Oval Office?

Gilson has been teaching about the election since mid-September.

The bulletin boards in her room are decorated in election Americana - a Venn diagram for students to use in comparing characteristics of each candidate; a poster featuring portraits of all the presidents; a series of placards called the "Path to the Presidency," from primaries and caucuses to the inauguration.

The debates are when the election comes alive for these teens. Gilson and another teacher, Helen McCracken, give tips on what students should look and listen for in the first debate. Do the candidates really answer the question? Do they give specifics about policies and plans? Does their body language give its own message?

It turns out the kids were paying attention to more than the tweets.

"They said education in there, but I want to know more about education," says Hailey Acevedo.

"They talk too much about taxes," says Christian Bobe. Gilson laughs and says they are important even if he doesn't pay them yet.

"Obama is trying to take the military out of Afghanistan," says Cameron Johnson. "We've been in there too long."

Later, Hailey shares other observations.

"The mistakes they make interest me. When somebody is asking them a question on the debate, Romney would vaguely tell them what he would do, but he wouldn't go into detail on it," says Hailey, who after learning more about both candidates is unsure which one she prefers. "Obama, he does the same thing."

Most schools in the Philadelphia region have activities planned around the election.

At Stewart Middle School in Norristown, students participated in a national essay contest by writing about the problem they would tackle first if they were president. Their answers included crime, the economy, terrorism, the environment, immigration policy, animal cruelty - even strays.

In Woolwich Township in Gloucester County, Kingsway Regional Middle School eighth graders learned this month about presidential elections in general, and about the candidates and their parties' platforms in particular.

They also designed campaign posters for the candidate of their choice. One for Romney shows the candidate's photo and says "Restore America," while one for the president has a portrait with the slogan, "If he did it once, he can do it again." Like many schools in the region, Kingsway also holds a mock election.

Katelyn Barr, a 12-year-old from Devon, is getting an electoral education outside the classroom. She is part of the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps - that's the Scholastic best known for publishing children's books and magazines. Kids, she says, need their own source of news.

"I don't think kids want to hear all the violent stuff going on," Barr said of what is generally reported on in newspapers and on TV. "They like to hear more interesting and fun things going on, like the elections and movies."

Katelyn's parents, incidentally, are a mixed marriage - a Republican and a Democrat. Their views don't influence Katelyn, though. In her family, "we don't talk about politics."

In April, Katelyn wrote a story about visiting a polling place in Upper Merion Township during the primary election and interviewing voters.

"I asked them why did they think there was a very low turnout," she says. Most interviewees suggested it was because Romney was the sure winner of the GOP nomination.

"From that story, I learned that if someone is a favorite, they don't even bother to vote for someone else." She pauses, and then makes a political observation so innocently logical. "But if all people voted, someone else might win."


Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109 or cdavis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @carolyntweets.

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