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Midterm Elections in the Classroom: Local Issues and Longstanding Themes

This is the third story in a series about teaching the midterm elections. See the previous posts on ballot initiatives and voter turnout .

How do you make the midterm elections come alive, especially for students who already feel disenfranchised? That was the challenge faced by Chelsea Ann Hittel, a social studies teacher at the Heather Ridge School, an alternative middle and high school in Frederick County, Md. Most of her students attend the school because they didn't succeed in a regular high school curriculum; many are on individualized education programs.

"The curriculum for government is very dry and unengaging, honestly. Kids come into government already hating it. They think it's going to be boring," Hittel said. "So instead of talking about tax policy and foreign policy, I decided, 'Let's get down to what really affects you and what you can really act on.'

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"A lot of my kids come in feeling cheated, I guess, by authority figures and the system, they feel like they don't have a voice, and yet they are the ones most impacted by the decisions politicians make about social welfare and education. It's my opportunity to use my platform to show them how they can have a voice in the classroom," she continued.

Hittel's curriculum was based on two project-based learning opportunities to prep kids for the upcoming elections. In the first, students were asked to investigate local candidates' positions on the opioid epidemic, which has hit this part of Maryland heavily. In Frederick the opioid crisis is actually the biggest issue in the election for county sheriff, and has also been a key theme in the Maryland gubernatorial election.

"A lot of these kids think that there is one quick fix, and this was looking at the fact that every solution that policymakers propose is going to have a consequence," Hittel said. "It might be monetary, or backlash from another political party." 

One thing her students found challenging was identifying reliable information from among a competing set of editorials, news articles, and campaign websites.

"This is another issue with midterms—there just isn't a whole lot of information out there. It really shouldn't take as much effort as it does to take to find out what the candidates for sheriff think about opioids," she said.

The Right to Vote

Hittel's other project-based unit for the midterms incorporated history alongside civics. (One of the useful things about project-based learning, she says, is that each project can wrap in so many learning standards at once.)

For this unit, Hittel posed this essential question: Is voting an American right, responsibility, or privilege?

"I had no intention of doing this unit, but a couple of weeks into school a student said to me: 'I don't ever plan on voting,' and I was like, 'Whoa. Yeah you are,' " Hittel said. 

The unit begins with students outlining what the Founding Fathers said about the franchise, what the U.S. Constitution says, and comparing that to the current debates in the states over access to the ballot. Students were surprised to learn that in the country's early days, voting truly was a privilege afforded only to the landholding elite—and many groups were not extended the franchise until they went through years of painful struggle. 

They were doubly surprised to find that the theme of voter suppression has been a major concern in the 2018 midterm elections.

"They've been really kind of shocked because they've assumed voting is a right, and they were shocked at some of the methods that states were using to suppress voter turnout. And we were able to connect it back to how states did this back after the 13th Amendment through literacy tests and poll taxes," she said. 

Best of all, Hittel says, is how students have responded to these lessons.

"My third-block government class is the highlight of my class every day. They come in, they're ready to learn about this stuff, they're engaged. They're respectful of one another, and respectful of the issues," she said. "That's what I love about this generation coming up behind me. They really are ready to talk about these things." 

 Photo: Courtesy of Chelsea Ann Hittel

Reporting was supported by an EWA fellowship grant.

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