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A curveball for civics: How Chicago classrooms are responding to an unusual election

Chicago high school junior Alexa Valenzuela drops off get-out-the-vote literature in Albany Park on Nov. 3, 2020. The community organization Communities United partnered with several Chicago high schools on the effort.
Chicago high school junior Alexa Valenzuela drops off get-out-the-vote literature in Albany Park on Nov. 3, 2020. The community organization Communities United partnered with several Chicago high schools on the effort.
Mila Koumpilova / Chalkbeat Chicago

Four years ago, Linsey Rose and her middle schoolers dove deep into the Electoral College and the mechanics of elections in her U.S. history classes at STEM Magnet Academy on Chicago’s Near West Side.

This year’s wild ride has called for a different approach. With her students reeling from a hyperpartisan presidential election, a pandemic that has shuttered school buildings, and months of protests over police abuse, Rose chose to center her classroom conversations on individual power — specifically, voting and what changes middle school students can spark in their own lives and neighborhoods.

In the weeks before the election, students chose five adult family members, neighbors, or relatives and interviewed them about voting, careful to note any perceived or real barriers. As a class, they drafted a list of common issues and concerns, such as how to register to vote or mail in a ballot, and then researched solutions. The final assignment asked students to revisit the conversations with those trusted adults, share what they had learned, and log results.

“When we started this lesson, my students would tell me, ‘Adults don’t like to listen to young people,’” Rose said. “But I said, ‘You have a lot of power as a young person. They will listen to you in a different way if you use your voice.’”

Illinois has pushed in recent years to improve civics education. Teaching civics is now a requirement in middle and high school. But Chicago Public Schools has gone even further, with a dedicated department that provides a homegrown civics curriculum and discussion guides for important events, such as the day after the election.

Still, this year has forced teachers to be nimble, when every hour or social media post can bring uncertainty.

Kyle Beck, a U.S. history and civics teacher at Alcott College Prep High School, said Wednesday morning that, after focusing on students’ emotional health and questions, he was working on a discussion about President Donald Trump’s early morning tweet claiming victory when votes were still being counted.

“When students venture off into social media land, I’m really concerned about them being able to decipher a post or a tweet from a source who’s trying to sway or influence a narrative,” said Beck. “I’m reminding them: You have to (evaluate) who’s saying it, and why are they wanting you to read it? What are they wanting you to think?”

Students in Linsey Rose’s class used graphics and photographs to illustrate the power of voting.
Courtesy of Linsey Rose

Other educators were similarly adjusting in real time, incorporating timely issues such as participation, protest, mail-in balloting, media literacy, and assessing fact versus fiction.

In response to concerns about election misinformation, Margie Smagacz, a teacher at Foreman Career Academy, emphasized fact checking skills for her 11th and 12th grade classes.

“We looked at the first debate between the two candidates and we dissected their words, looked at their body language, and also at the questions,” said Smagacz, who said she has tried to maintain a neutral stance on the election.

On Wednesday, students in Smagacz’s two classes woke up with a barrage of questions. Her approach centered on CNN’s electoral map, which broke down voting percentages by county. “We really dug in deep in what people are thinking and how they are thinking, and who votes in this county (versus) that county,” she said.

What most struck her was students’ need for a sense of security among the uncertainty. “Our young people have a lot on their mind about how they feel the country is being run and what is important to them,” Smagacz said. “I remind them: It comes down to individual people.”

But are the students OK?

Chicago’s push to be a national leader in civics curriculum has coincided with a growing awareness of the need to regularly assess students’ emotional well-being. Teachers say that responsibility — of reading the room to see how students feel and what they need — has become more complicated in a virtual setting.

Teachers recognized the need to pause Wednesday and gauge how their students were doing, even if they had to lean more on chat boxes and Google forms than reading facial expressions and body language.

Beck started the day with a Google form that asked students to rate how they were feeling on a scale of 1 to 5. (Most were OK, and teachers have the option of referring those who aren’t to counselors or social workers.)

Some students said hearing from teachers and classmates helped them cope with the uncertainty.

Alexa Valenzuela, a junior at Roosevelt High School, said talking about how she and her peers spent Election Day and working through anxieties during a civics class helped take the edge off post-election stress.

On Tuesday, Valenzuela had stopped by the basement of Albany Park’s Christ Lutheran Church to take part in a get-out-the-vote effort with other teens — a partnership between the nonprofit Communities United and several Chicago high schools called the Woke Project, which allows students to meet the district’s public service requirement. Like other students who were phone banking and dropping off election literature that day, Valenzuela felt her involvement was an effective antidote against Election Day jitters: “Even though I can’t vote, I can do my part.”

Still, Valenzuela remained nervous about what might happen next.

Shamiya Owens, a junior at Simeon High School, also said discussing the election with students and teachers — from a brief check-in at the start of cosmetology class to a meaty discussion in English — helped her and her classmates feel heard. Owens said she has been praying that Tuesday’s vote would not lead to unrest.

“It was a good thing to do,” she said. “It made me feel like the teachers do care, even if they don’t show their emotions sometimes.”

She said her English teachers surveyed students before and after an exercise about how different results in key battleground states might affect the final outcome. Many students said they felt “confident” after that discussion.

In other classrooms, teachers took a cautious approach. DeJernet Farder, a first grade teacher at Morton School of Excellence on the city’s West Side, scrapped a mock presidential election that she typically stages in her class.

“Our classrooms are in people’s houses right now, and adults have big feelings about the candidates,” said Farder. Instead she asked students to vote on a favorite book — “Click Clack Moo” versus “Duck for President” — and tallied results on a bar chart for an added boost of math. (“Click Clack Moo” won in a landslide.)

Lessons are ongoing

However the presidential election shakes out, teachers said the lessons won’t end this week.

Pankaj Sharma, a social studies teacher at Niles North High School in Niles Township High School District 219, said this year stood out among his 19 years teaching U.S. history and government for one simple reason: He’s never seen students so motivated to participate in social justice movements and civic projects.

Sharma said some of his students have been involved in the Black Lives Matter protests, while others have done phone and text banking from home for candidates.

“All the things that our country is facing, whether it’s the pandemic, economic crisis and the racial injustice crisis, our students are living through that,” Sharma said. “I think that makes them more engaged and more passionate about wanting to vote and about wanting to follow and see who wins.”

Even though her middle schoolers reported feeling “anxious,” “worried,” and even “scared” Wednesday, Rose said the voting assignment had yielded results at STEM Magnet Academy — and some optimism.

“One student said: ‘I did it. I got my dad to vote,’” she said. “We were able to celebrate that and give her a virtual high five. It actually was really cool. The student said she felt really excited and really scared at the same time.”

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