Teaching Civic Duty To Those Who Can't Yet Practice It

Nov 8, 2016

Students at Carrick High School used iPads to vote Friday in a mock presidential election.
Credit Joshua Rice / Pittsburgh Public Schools

Many of Tim Mielke’s students are too young to remember previous presidential elections.

The ninth grade social studies teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School said his challenge this year has been explaining the unique aspects of this election by comparing it to previous election cycles.

Allderdice was one of 13 local high schools that participated in a mock election organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Democratic candidates handily won the faux election. With 1,739 students participating, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won with 71 percent of votes and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty won with 60 percent. When it came to other down ballot races, 81 percent of the students voted for Democrat Mike Doyle for 14th District representative and 74 percent voted for Democrat Josh Shapiro for Attorney General.

Mielke said he used the simulation to explain civic duty and the democratic process to his students.

“Telling them, yes you’re going to talk to your parents about what the election is going to be and who you should support, but what’s really important is you’re making your own decisions and you’re doing your own research in answering issues you have,” he said.

Allderdice students had the option of voting on an iPad during their lunch period at three make-shift booths that students and teachers arranged in the cafeteria.

In the days leading up to the vote, Mielke said he used the mock voting as a tool to teach about the election process, such as what the ballot would look like.

“We had some good discussion about how ballots should be created and whether or not we should have a national ballot or if it should be up to the states,” he said.  

Students at Allderdice High School created three voting booths for the school's mock presidential election.
Credit Tim Mielke / Pittsburgh Public Schools

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the simulation of an election with people who can’t legally vote can empower a student to understand there are choices in how communities can work.

“When you hear things at home, when you hear things in the school yard, when you have different viewpoints about things,” she said, “kids don’t know where to put those feelings or emotions or what they might believe are facts. So we as school teachers need to find an environment that is welcoming so that these can be exposed and dealt with.”

She said she’s heard many anecdotes from teachers across the country about students revealing fear about their futures when they’re asked to participate in a mock election.

To that, she said it’s vital that teachers create an environment that welcomes discourse and respect among classmates - especially once the next president is chosen.

At Allerdice, 287 students voted, which only represents about 22 percent of the school’s students. Mielke said he’ll use that statistic after the vote to talk to his students about the issue of overall low voter turnout in the country.

Carrick High School students were asked to vote in the mock election during their English period on Friday. The school had a much higher turnout with 62 percent of students voting -- 60 percent voted for Clinton. 

Joshua Rice, a world history and women’s studies teacher at the high school, said he has discussed the election with his students for several months. He used the last few weeks leading up to the vote to discuss the democratic system, including how it works and what voting barriers people have faced in the country.

He said Tuesday he plans to focus on the Electoral College.

“Seeing that even though it’s an antiquated system, it still has a place in our modern society today,” he said.

Josh Sayles, communication director at the Jewish Federation, said the organization prepared the program to help students understand the importance of voting. The mock election was part of a larger campaign, “Be Our Vote.” Students from across the district helped register voters at football games this fall.

The group of students were featured in the non-profit’s “Get out the Vote” video in which students ask adults to think of them when they’re voting.

“The goal was for students to show people in the broader community that when they vote that they’re representing more than just themselves,” he said.