At the start of the school year, my students knew very little about Canadian politics. They knew Justin Trudeau was the Prime Minister. Beyond that, they had many misconceptions about how decisions are made in the Canadian government and how elections work. They had very little interest in learning more...Until I told them I was giving them my vote and that they had to do some serious research to make this important decision for me. Since that moment, everything changed! They began to debate politics while getting ready for recess. They watched the news to catch up on the latest polling data. They discussed the issues in the upcoming election with their families and made their parents promise them they will vote. Some even convinced their parents to vote for their chosen candidate.
At the beginning of this unit, I asked the students who they would vote for, if they had to vote. One student refused to decide and said, “I don’t want to vote if I don’t know what they stand for!” That truly insightful comment gave me the “why” for this unit. It drove us as a class to find out more so that everyone could make an informed decision on voting day.
To ensure they were making an informed decision, the students researched the political parties and their platforms. They compared party philosophies to their own beliefs and values. They enthusiastically watched and critiqued videos and social media posts of the parties and the leaders, including watching the Federal Leaders’ Debate.
Imagining themselves as a hiring committee for the next Member of Parliament for Kings-Hants, students brainstormed a list of qualities and skills they would like to see in their elected official. Using that list, they came up with the following criteria for their ideal candidate:
We believe the ideal candidate must be honest and not make promises they can’t keep.
We believe they should care about the environment.
They should be able to listen with an open-mind.
They should be knowledgeable about the issues important to people in our riding.
They should have good public speaking skills.
Finally, the ideal candidate should be positive and kind.
The four main candidates in our riding came to the class. The students interviewed them with hard-hitting questions on a huge variety of topics, from jobs for Nova Scotians to environmental policy.
One of the things that impressed me most about the way the students handled themselves, was that they approached this challenge with an open-mind. Instead of being committed to a particular party or candidate based solely on ideology, they were open to processing new information and considering other perspectives. As they got new information, based on their research, the candidate interviews, or discussions amongst themselves, they often switched their choices, carefully weighing the pros and cons of the options before them.
In the final week of the unit, the students each wrote a persuasive essay (the first essay for many of them) which became their opening statements for a class debate. In my years of teaching, I have noticed that students put their best selves forward when learning is relevant and they have an authentic audience. We were lucky to have CBC reporter, Colleen Jones, join us with a TV cameraman...No performance pressure like having a TV camera and reporter in your classroom! Knowing that their audience was going to be more than just their classmates and teacher, they put extra effort into their speeches and debate. Experiences like this help students develop so many important communication skills, including public speaking and active listening. It also builds their confidence and prepares them for future learning engagements such as Model United Nations.
The class on CBC
An interesting twist to the process was figuring out how they would decide my vote. The catch? I only had one vote, and after interviewing the candidates, the students were interested in all four. They even had to decide how they were going to decide on my vote. They considered several forms of decision-making that mirrored political processes around the world, including first past the post (winner takes all), a ranked ballot, and forming consensus. They also had some creative decision-making ideas, such as knocking on doors in the community and getting signatures supporting their candidate of choice, doing school-wide surveys, and perhaps the most original, instituting a "swear jar" (if you were caught saying inappropriately negative things about another party, you would lose points). As we had also looked at several electoral models in the unit, students wanted to experience how a preferential voting system might work in real life.
Going up the steps to our classroom there are several key phrases that underpin our philosophy at The Booker School. One of them is “Release the spark.” In the students’ own words, it is pretty clear that a spark has been released:
“I thought politics was boring and totally pointless, but now I think it is fun and interesting.” - Grade 6 student
“It made me care about politics.” - Grade 6 student
“It was an opportunity I don’t usually get and I was happy that I did that and that I stepped forward out of the box from what I usually do.” - Grade 5 student
“It was really fun! We should try it again sometime.” - Grade 6 student
“I learned so much about it!” - Grade 5 student
This unit was a great example of making learning fun and relevant. I know the students will remember this when they are of voting age. I'm pretty sure they will get out and vote, and that they will take the time to become informed voters. Some people asked me if I was nervous about letting the students decide my vote. Absolutely not. I knew my vote was in good hands because they took the time to become informed voters. They can be a model for all of us!