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Teaching the Midterm Elections: Voter Turnout and Its Implications

This is the second in a series looking at teaching the 2018 midterm elections. 

Today, we're highlighting Kathleen Argus, a teacher at the Institute of Technology, a public high school in Syracuse, N.Y., who teachers a 12th grade active citizenship course. 

Teaching about elections poses some particular challenges in New York, a state that nearly always winds up blue in presidential elections thanks to the dominance of New York City. So, from a certain angle, the midterms are even more important for the state's electorate: That's where upstate districts and counties can really make their voting power felt. 

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"The trouble with teaching about voting is that it comes so quick in the school year. You've just got them for a month and a half and then you're in the middle of this civic moment," Argus said. "I always start the course with the basics of federalism, national politics versus the state and the local. It seems really complicated for students even though I also teach it in 11th grade. And I think most adults probably struggle with it, too. From there we dive into whether voting is a right or a duty, the whole philosophy behind voting, and whether or not they feel like it has any power. We have to get over the stigma that voting doesn't matter."

One of Argus' main tools for teaching making those connections through the midterm elections: Having her students dig into real voter-turnout data. 

Iin the 2016 presidential election, New York state was 44th in terms of voter turnout. Argus has been having her students try to look behind that number at the whys and hows. 

"We've been doing a lot with data, and who comes out to vote, and where they typically vote in the state in general, and then we're honing into the county data. We've been going from big to smaller and smaller to smaller and saying 'How this is going to effect you and you family?' 

"I gave them three sources, and from those they had to choose things that popped out from that data. They were able to draw some conclusions from that—that older people are voting, while black people aren't voting in high percentages. And when we break it down by our county, it allows me to ask the question: We only have a certain amount of representatives in any of our governments. Are they young or old? Do they look like you?" (The Institute is a very diverse school.)

Some of the comparisons to other counties were eye-opening for students: They quickly saw that King's County, which encompasses the Brooklyn borough of New York city, had more people voting in 2016 than the entire population of Onondaga county, where Syracuse is located.

Here's another thing that particularly caught her students' attention: A series of PSAs in which older, white voters urge young people not to vote. The clever ad campaign was created to underscore to young voters how low youth-voting rates mean that the Baby Boomers are still calling a lot of the shots in local and national elections.

All of this preparation culminated in an assignment for students: To put together a local voter's guide for their own community outlining the significant races. At first, students had a hard time understanding the point of such a guide, so Argus walked them through news articles outlining some common obstacles to voting: not knowing where to go, what time the polls are open, whether voters can get time off work to vote, or where to look up voter-registration status. The students' guides have to contain that key information. Argus also charged students with trying to make their guides as accessible as possible to new voters.  

Argus hasn't finished grading them, but she's pleased with some of what she's seen so far, especially on the question of accessibility. "I had one student who wrote hers in Spanish. And another who wrote it in giant type, and when I asked her why, she said, 'My neighbor's blind,' " Argus said. 

Over this past weekend, students distributed the guides in their neighborhoods. Some students will also be putting them out on social media under the hashtag #itcvoteraction.

The unit is also one of the steps, Argus says, to greater links between her classroom and the city's civic institutions. For two years, she worked for the city school system creating new curricula to match New York's new social studies framework and the C3 guidelines created by the National Council for the Social Studies, which both emphasize the importance of civic action, not just civic knowledge. 

"Our building is the only school where we can walk to the county offices. The federal and county courthouses are within six blocks of us. We have the two museums down here, we have the war memorials down here," Argus said. "We have all these resources right here, and I'm really trying to turn this school to being more active in the community." 

Photo: Kathleen Argus, left, poses with a student at graduation. Courtesy of Kathleen Argus

Check back with us tomorrow to meet a Maryland teacher whose students are looking at candidates' opinions on a controversial local issue.

Reporting was supported by an EWA fellowship grant.

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