Democracy Starts Here

Just before the polls opened for voting Tuesday, the mood inside Jan Stallings’s class was one of anxious anticipation.  Her Wildwood 5th graders began preparing the Elementary campus for this momentous day back  in late September.

Fifth graders organize and run a mock election, and they’ve carefully designed their polling station for maximum efficiency. Several students monitor registration tables set up for each grade. They help voters sign in, and hand out ballots for President of the United States.  Other students observe the two voting booths set up to allow privacy.  Closer to the door, matching student-constructed boxes are ready for marked ballots. Near the exit, another group of 5th graders awaits voters with “I Voted” stickers for those who cast their ballots.

Fiftth grader Henry C. anticipates a smooth election. “Maybe some of the younger kids will draw on the ballots, or go right to get stickers before they vote,” he offers, “but other than that, I think that it will go alright.”  His classmates share his confidence.

The first voters, all students in Colleen McGee’s 4th grade class, line up outside of the room and file in two at a time and head to the registration tables. After casting their ballots and receiving stickers, I do some of my own exit polling with Colleen’s students.  “I voted for Barack Obama,” says 4th grader, Anushka H. “He’s been a good President.” Her classmate, Olivia L. concurs, adding, “He’s really smart and I hope that he wins.”  This early sample indicates that things look secure for the incumbent.

Wave after wave of enthusiastic students come through the polls, with Jan’s students ably assisting each voter and directing them through the process. Associate teacher, Linda Gordon, explains that months of prep helped the students understand the process. “We started by studying both Presidential candidates’ positions the issues and the Electoral College,” Linda tells me. Jan added, “We also emphasized the importance of ‘getting out the vote.’” Then students then had to prepare a presentation on the candidates that they gave to each of the other classes at school. Wildwood’s 5th graders even enjoyed a special visit from Joel Brand, a Wildwood parent and former CNN reporter, who gave an insider view on polling and elections to the students.

After 45 minutes the first surge of voting is complete, and Jan’s students have their room to themselves for a while. During the break in the action, she leads her students in a de-brief.  “What did you notice with this round of voting?” she asks.  “Well, it was kind of loud in here,” says one of her students. “Just like it is in the real world,” Jan tells her students, “Democracy can be messy, and it can be loud.”

Later Tuesday night, President Obama echoed exactly what Jan had explained to her students during their mock election. Thanking his supporters for his re-election, President Obama said, “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy, and messy, and complicated.”  Scaled down to Wildwood size, those thoughts made sense to the Wildwood 5th graders who created and participated in an electoral experience themselves.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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