According to the U.S. Census, only 41.9 percent of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2004 U.S. presidential election. While 60.3 percent of whites turned up at the polls, only 56.3 percent of African Americans and 28 percent of Latinos contributed to the election of our current president. These figures pose a challenge to our democratic society. How do we encourage more Americans to fulfill their democratic duties? One essential step is for educatorsincluding afterschool educatorsto expose young people to experiences that can bolster their participation in political processes. In my work with the StreetSquash Book Club, I used a young adult novel as an entry point for a thematic unit that encouraged young people to become active, engaged citizens.
StreetSquash is an afterschool enrichment program that serves students from public middle and high schools in Harlem. Seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade participants in the StreetSquash Book Club meet on Friday afternoons for book-related discussions and activities. The 2004 presidential election provided the perfect opportunity to involve book club students in the political process. The challenge was to present the subject in a way that would engage the students, inspiring them to see the election as relevant and exciting rather than as boring "adult stuff."
The first step was to find a book that would invite the students into the political process and not alienate them with a bunch of irrelevant political babble. I was delighted to find Vote for Larry, Janet Tashjian’s novel about an 18-year-old social activist whose outrage at social inequality in the U.S. inspires him to run for president. Tashjian’s novel cleverly uses humor and a teen love triangle to make social issues accessible to young readers. Larry keeps statisticsfor instance, "One in three U.S. children is poor at some point during childhood"on sticky notes that are "posted" at the beginnings of many chapters; these statistics helped make issues such as child poverty concrete for my book clubbers. Using Larry’s sticky notes as a starting point, I engaged the StreetSquash students in discussions about issues such as world hunger and the environment. The students watched televised debates and read newspaper articles to understand the presidential candidates’ positions; then they worked in groups to construct arguments in support of different candidates in order to participate in a group debate. They also wrote letters to the candidates in their journals, expressing their opinions on, for example, the war in Iraq and inequalities in the education system.
In addition to readings and discussions, I engaged the students in a variety of activities to expand their knowledge about the election.
Election scavenger hunt. I gave the students a list of questions about the election, such as "What are the names of the two major United States political parties? Who is each party’s presidential candidate?" and "Find the date and topic of the next presidential debate." Using copies of The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and other newspapers and magazines, the students worked in groups to find the answers.
Political cartoons. Political cartoons gave the students insight into campaign issues and the interactions among politics, society, and the media. I taught the students how to analyze these cartoons by looking for key symbols such as the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. We discussed how political cartoons use caricatures of the candidates that exaggerate features such as ears or noses. The students then designed their own political cartoons with their own symbols and caricatures.
Mock electoral college. To demonstrate the workings of the U.S. Electoral College, we held our own classroom election between our chosen candidates: music artists Nelly and Li’l Fizz. Each student voted individually, and we tallied the results of the popular election. Then I split the students into groups representing states. States with larger populations had more group members. We looked at a map to see how many electoral votes each state has and discussed the link between population and number of electoral votes. We then allocated electoral votes to the candidate who won the popular vote in each of the states we represented. The victor of our electoral vote was not the popular-vote winner, an outcome that helped students grasp what happened in the 2000 presidential election.
Getting Out the Vote. The next step was to go beyond classroom activities to engage the students in democratic action so that they would have a greater sense of their ability and duty, even as citizens too young to vote, to contribute to their community’s political process. The Friday before Election Day, the StreetSquash Book Club students set up a nonpartisan voter pledge table in front of their school. They approached community members to remind them about the upcoming election and to give them fliers outlining voting information such as the date of the election and how to find their polling site. The students also asked potential voters to sign a pledge promising that they would go to the polls on November 2. By the end of that Friday afternoon, the StreetSquash Book Club had encouraged 174 community members to pledge to vote. More importantly, they had a great time with their first taste of civil activism.
Exposing young people to politics helps demystify what for many Americans is a complicated and intimidating process. Just as exposure to books at a young age makes a person more likely to read as an adult, students who have positive experiences with politics from a young age are more likely to be active, voting citizens. I hope that by introducing book club students to the excitement of political activism and emphasizing the significance of participating in elections, the StreetSquash Book Club helped to engender a habit of engaged citizenship in its members.