Stuffing her ballot in the box, Paterson third-grader Tyana Dixon is getting her first lesson in civics.
“We’re learning about the election for voting for different presidents,” she said.
In an election cycle marred by inflammatory campaign rhetoric and insults that would undoubtedly earn a ticket to detention, schools across the state have been struggling to find creative ways to teach kids the process.
“In many ways this is an election like no other and there is some trepidation on the part of teachers. They want to keep the lessons focused on the most important parts of what a good civic education should be. They don’t want it to go to the name calling,” said Robert O’Dell.
O’Dell heads the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisors Association. It runs statewide mock elections for students, similar to the one held at William Paterson University for Paterson School 12. The focus is on American ideals, good character traits and the Constitution.
“We’re not going to tell them what to think, but we do want to help them learn how to think and how to think critically and be the kinds of citizens who will sustain our democracy well into the future,” O’Dell said.
“New Jersey is one of very few states that doesn’t require a civics course for all students. So, I think this election shows how desperately we do need a civics course for all students,” said New Jersey Center for Civic Education Executive Director Arlene Gardner.
Students held a caucus, made campaign posters and slogans. Because even in third grade, politics spill from the dinner table to the playground.
“I hear that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are going at each other. Like Donald Trump is attacking and she’s talking about him,” said third-grader Ja-Den McGuire.
“We began today talking about leadership characteristics and what we look for in a leader and we began by asking what do you look for in a friend,” said William Paterson University Associate Professor of Elementary Education Elizabeth Brown.
One of the other tactics used to take the politics out of it? Don’t use real candidates. Instead students are choosing from fictional characters out of books they’ve read to choose their next leader.
“We really think that our job is to teach the process and what we want from our students is to understand that they will have a responsibility to be voters. So the first piece is that civic responsibility,” said Oradell Public School Principal Megan Bozios.
So at Oradell Public School, Bozios has her pre-K through sixth grade students watching video ads from candidates Mr. Fox and Mr. Wolf.
“So much of the issues are above a first-grader’s head so what happens is they parrot what their parents say without being able to think critically themselves and that’s what we want. We want critical thinkers,” Bozios said.
Instead students will cast votes for school uniforms, free band-aids or free snacks. And even in districts where real party platforms are invoked, students follow good civil discourse. After all, educators say, the purpose of a social studies education should be to make tomorrow’s citizens.