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Learning How to Lose a Presidential Election: A Primer for Students

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Adams table during election small.jpeg

We welcome guest blogger Ruth Ebenstein*. Ruth is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian and health/peace activist and author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide.

Even when the stakes are low, you still need to know how to handle defeat. It was this driving principle that motivated Laura Pasek, a third and fourth grade general studies teacher, to conclude her simulation of a presidential election at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor with drafting acceptance speeches--and concession speeches.  Since the early days of September, her students had enthusiastically thrown themselves into a simulated election of 1800, incumbent John Adams vs. Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The students had hosted party conventions, plastered school walls with campaign ads, organized a presidential debate, and canvassed all the grades of the elementary school.   

As School Voting Day grew closer, Pasek focused on the last, and perhaps most important, lesson of the campaign: how to concede. On November 4, one founding father was going to get reelected; the other was going to lose. And it was bound to sting. 

"Kids need to know how to manage disappointment and defeat in life," said Pasek. So she worked to create a safe environment for risk and failure. Her efforts were informed by the research of Carol Dweck and Carol Dwyer that champions focusing on process rather than on outcome or intelligence. 

Pasek started off with casual role play, helping the children navigate the balance between excitement and empathy, between pride and disappointment. "What kind of facial expression would be appropriate for the victor and for the loser?" "Are you allowed to smile?" The students nodded yes. "Boastful laughter?" "No." they yelled. "Can you cry?" "Try to hold it in for your supporters, if you can" advised the students. "Or maybe slip into the bathroom." they suggested. The eight- and nine-year-olds practiced shaking hands and congratulating the other side. Together, they brainstormed conciliatory phrases, such as "I wish you luck in the presidency" and "I look forward to working with you."  Esther, Thomas Jefferson's campaign manager, went as far as offering John Adams the position of Secretary of State. 

Drafting Acceptance and Concession Speeches 
Then they turned their attention to composing speeches. To set a regal tone Pasek read the letter President George H.W. Bush left in the Oval Office in 1993 for his successor, incoming President Bill Clinton. 

"Dear Bill, When I walked into this office just now, I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago... You will be our President when you read this note... Your success is now our country's success. I am rooting for you. Good luck, George"

The room was quiet. Enraptured students seemed to be listening intently, sans the regular wiggling of bodies and whispered conversation, as if absorbing the text, tone and tenor of this real presidential moment.  

Then the third-graders and fourth-graders turned to penning their own speeches. Pasek's guidelines: accept the results of the election, offer encouragement to supporters, congratulate the other side, and lay out a vision for moving forward together. Working in groups of four, the students typed up their ideas, revised their drafts, and designated one student to give the remarks.

History Repeats Itself: Thomas Jefferson Wins
Fast forward to November 4th. As in the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson was victorious: in 2016, he won 54.3 percent votes; John Adams took 45.7 percent. Hannah, a.k.a., John Adams, looked down at the speech she had hoped she wouldn't have to give. A white colonial wig covering her shoulder-length hair, she sighed and grabbed her papers. Standing tall, she walked over to the presidential podium. 

"My Fellow Americans, I congratulate Thomas Jefferson on his victory.  I thank my supporters and those who made this election such an exciting experience. I hope Thomas Jefferson will use some of my ideas during his presidency, such as paying slaves.  Thomas Jefferson is good and has lots of experience.  I wish you a good four years as our president.  Thank you. God bless you and God bless America."

When Hannah walked off stage, she smiled warmly at the other seven members of the John Adams team.
Then, Livnat, a.k.a. Thomas Jefferson, stepped up to the podium to give her acceptance speech. 

"I accept the important role of president. I pledge to be the best president I can be. And to John Adams' supporters, trust me that I am listening and hear your ideas. I promise to make decisions that will be in America's best interest. That includes you."

Livnat stepped down to join her winning team, sitting to the right of the podium. As they had practiced, all eight of Thomas Jefferson team shook hands with all eight of the John Adams teams. There were a few long faces and heavy sighs. Still, Hannah said she had no regrets. 

"Knowing how to win is easy," said Hannah. "What's difficult is to know how to lose. I did a good job, we all worked hard, and I feel proud of that. If you've done your best, then it's just okay to lose."

More about Ruth:
Ruth is also the author of  "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.  

Photo courtesy of Michael Fried

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