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Four More Years ... Their Lives Will Never Be the Same

Did your guy win or lose? Half of the nation is celebrating this day after the presidential election, and the other half is shaking its head in defeat. The next four years look hopeful. The next four years look bleak.

I was too tired last night to stay up late waiting for the polling results. So when I got up at 5 a.m. I asked my husband to tell me who won. "Don't tell me ... No, tell me who won—don't tell me. Okay just tell me already!"

"Four more years," is all he said.

I quickly sat up and flipped opened my laptop. President Barack Obama won a second term with 50 percent of the popular vote, defeating former Gov. Mitt Romney by two percent.

Four more years ...

A million things ran through my mind, and then I started thinking about my middle school students. In four years, some of them will be 18 and old enough to vote. Most will be preparing to graduate from high school, though Chicago statistics predict that nearly half of them will have already dropped out. A chunk of them will be in the process of applying for college, but only six percent will end up earning a bachelor's degree by the time they turn 25. A few of them will be parents, as some are sexually active right now.

I don't know exactly what my students will be doing or where they will end up, by one thing's for sure: In four years, they will be adults (or close to it).

Thinking back on the conversations I have had with them about the election process, I realize the need to help them develop critical thinking skills. The social studies teacher encouraged them to watch the presidential debates, and they came back to school with interesting interpretations.

My middle schoolers tended to characterize Obama and Romney in terms of thriller movie characters or superheroes from a Marvel flick. Obama was the hero out to save the world from annihilation, and Romney was the dastardly villain whose only goal in life was suck up all the world's wealth for himself and his minions. Students would say things like, "Romney is evil. He says poor people shouldn't go to college. Obama is going to make college free for everybody."

In our brief discussions about the election, I tried to get students to think about the issues from multiple perspectives. They needed to know that just because someone had an opposing point of view, that did not automatically make him "evil." They needed to listen to Romney's point and consider the pros and cons of it. Likewise, assuming that the person they most agreed with is always right—in this case, Obama—is another thing I cautioned them about. It is perfectly okay, even advisable, to scrutinize what an ally says to make sure that person is being honest and shares what you truly believe.

Outside of my age, the thing students most wanted to know about me was who I was voting for. I told them that "I hold dear the American tradition of democracy by secret ballot." Translation: I'm not telling you.

Four more years...

The problems America faces with the economy, education, health care, immigration, social inequality, and war are so huge and unpredictable that I imagine we will still be grappling with them by the time the next presidential election rolls around in 2016.

But in four more years, ready or not, my students will enter the real world of adulthood. Teachers must do our best now to help them to think critically, to question, to ponder. It's a huge undertaking, but one that we won't achieve if we just tell them what to think or who we think they should theoretically vote for.

I've tried to encourage my students not to put too much confidence in the one man who occupies the Oval Office. Yes, he has an important role to play in society, but he couldn't stop thousands of Americans from losing everything they owned in Hurricane Sandy. At the end of the day, the president of the United States is just a man. Plus, the president's political powers are limited; Obama has to work with a divided Senate and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives that holds the nation's checkbook—or should I say credit card?

So as I congratulate President Barack Obama on his hard-won re-election, I am left to ponder a more daunting question. Where what kind of adults will my students be in four more years?

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