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Students from Air Force Academy High School organized a voter registration drive for classmates eligible to vote and with counselors arranged a school-day march to the polls last fall to cast ballots in the governor’s race.

Students from Air Force Academy High School organized a voter registration drive for classmates eligible to vote and with counselors arranged a school-day march to the polls last fall to cast ballots in the governor’s race.

Miya Clay

How four Chicago educators mine a competitive and historic election for the classroom

Much about Chicago’s Tuesday municipal election could go down in the history books. The contest features the most contenders in the city’s history — 14, whittled down from 21 to start — who are vying for mayor, alongside more than 200 candidates for the 45 contested ward races to fill City Council seats.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago’s schools? See Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide.

And while Chicago high schools aren’t yet required to teach civics — a state law makes civics a graduation requirement starting with class of 2020 — many do. The district offers an official civics curriculum called “CPS Participate” that teachers can use.

But plenty of educators are taking inspiration from the unprecedented moment to fashion lessons. From mock elections to polling marches to journaling, educators shared with Chalkbeat ways they are building the event into lessons in their classrooms and beyond.

Ashley McCall, third grade English/language arts bilingual teacher at César E. Chávez Multicultural Academic Center

Third grade might seem early to start talking about candidates and policies. But McCall has used the election in her Back of the Yards classroom to facilitate conversations with her students about city issues they care about — from safety and transportation to access to healthy foods.

“I think the best teachers are constantly reminding their students their classrooms are already a part of the real world, and there’s no set, age, time, or place to start to engage that world,” she said.

Outside the classroom, McCall helps organize Chi Students Vote, an effort directed at high school students eligible to vote. The group has shared with students voter education resources from Chi.Votes (Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner of the effort), Ballot Ready, and the League of Women Voters. On Saturday, McCall expects to welcome about 50 students to a voter engagement event at the downtown offices of Teach For America, 175 W. Washington St., where they will compare candidates policies, come up with a ballot, and march to the polls for early voting.

Kenzo Shibata, civics teacher, Ogden International High School

Kenzo Shibata’s classes at Ogden International in the Near North Side community have been talking about the election for a couple months — even back when the list of hopefuls topped 20. Last fall, he split students into groups, and had them scour websites and note common themes. They then each picked a candidate and made campaign posters to hang on the classroom wall — taking down the posters as, one-by-one, several contenders dropped out of the race.

One goal, Shibata said, has been encouraging his students to read between the lines of campaign literature. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it — a lot of students just do not have any interest in the political process, but they’re starting to gain an understanding of it and have the language that empowers them to discuss it,” he said.  

He has connected the moment to history, too, teaching units on women’s suffrage and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he hoped hammered home “how much blood was shed just for the right to vote.”

To help students understand Chicago’s non-partisan elections and what happens when no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote,  Shibata held internal classroom elections to demonstrate how the runoff process works.

There’s a psychological element to the lessons, too: Students who voted late were inundated with live results showing how exit polling can impact voter decisions. Some students decided not to vote when their candidate was so far behind. That all became part of the lesson.

The election also presents an opportunity to bring in elements of technology and math: Next week, the whole school will vote in mock elections, and Shibata’s civics classes will analyze the data.

Elizabeth Robbins, history and civics, Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy High School.

At her Roseland community school, Robbins relies on the “CPS Participate” civics curriculum, which includes a unit on elections. The curriculum focuses on helping students understand who has power in our democracy, how they got it, how they use it, “and what is my power to engage in that and make changes I think is important,” she said.

Her sophomores and seniors have been examining the impact of elections and she’s encouraged them to think past the one-day event and understand what follows, including the policies implemented and impact on communities.  

The lessons have included simulations of U.S. Senate judiciary hearings on campaign finance and discussions about whether campaign finance laws should be changed; reflections on students’ political ideologies; candidate policy proposals and the Vote Equity project; mock elections; reading election news and tweeting their opinions; and campaigning for an aldermanic or mayoral candidate of their choice.

“Giving students the chance to start digging into and really understand the impact of elections is a wonderful opportunity,” she said — particularly in a local election, where turnout tends to pale compared to national elections. “The goal of class is to give kids opportunities to understand there’s a broad range of tools to make change.”

Yashika Tippett-Eggleston, principal, Air Force Academy High School

At Air Force Academy in Bridgeport, educators wanted students to lead the way. A student committee organized a voter registration drive for classmates eligible to vote and with counselors arranged a school-day march to the polls last fall to cast ballots in the governor’s race.

Every senior was invited, regardless of eligibility, so that they could learn about the voting process, experience canvassing, and earn service-learning hours.

The march stretched 2 miles, Tippett-Eggleston said, and it tied students to history. “Their research took them back to a time when blacks couldn’t vote, or they would walk miles and miles to get to the polling place. They didn’t want us to arrange to get a bus (to drive them). It connected that voting is a privilege that they should not take for granted.”

Are you ready to vote on Feb. 26? Find everything you need at Chi.vote, a one-stop shop for the Chicago election — Chalkbeat Chicago is a partner.

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