Students study civics, feel election energy
November 2, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Election season can be a constant headache of political calls, prickly political discussions and endless signs around town, but for teachers in Routt County, it also is a teaching opportunity.
In Cindy Ruzicka’s classes at the Lowell Whiteman Primary School, for example, the second-, third- and fourth-grade students performed “Election Connection,” a play Ruzicka wrote that presents presidential facts and civics lessons as a way to learn about the political process. Ruzicka said the students bring a new energy to the course this year because of national events. In local high school and college classrooms, that vitality is magnified because of the increasing opinions, news awareness and personal investment of older students. But no matter the age, there is no doubt that the turbulent, news-every-minute campaign season is raising student interest and creating real-life examples of lessons learned in class.
Ruzicka has been teaching election-based civics lessons to all grades in the school since the beginning of the year.
“Kids that are 8 and 9 years old are caught up in the fervor that is gripping the nation and the excitement and the energy and newfound enthusiasm for voting and politics,” she said. “They knew a lot of the candidates’ names stepping into the school in August.”
The election energy translates into deeper understanding and more questions, Ruzicka said.
“As a social studies teacher, you can’t beat an election year. It’s right in front of these kids; their parents are concerned, and you don’t really need to try too hard to get them to recognize the connection between what they’re learning in the classroom and what’s going on in the real world,” she said.
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As they follow the election, the students also bring their own interests into the classroom, where a civics class can help them to put the news in context.
“We often try to have the kids’ questions guide the curriculum and this year, more so than ever, they have come in with so many questions because they’re getting bits and pieces of information from the news and the radio,” Ruzicka said.
The courses are not based on specific candidates or political parties, Ruzicka said. Instead, she uses the current events to focus on the entire process.
“We don’t categorize it so much as a Republican or Democrat perspective, but we talk about how we can agree on what the problems are, and we come up with different solutions to the problems,” she said. “I try to keep politics aside.”
Steamboat Springs High School civics teacher Bob Stahl said the election does present a challenge on how to teach the class without bias.
“It’s kind of a delicate balance, because you really want to make it a learning experience but you don’t want to be preaching politically one way or another,” he said. “You want to push the kids to think about why they think the way they think.”
In order to do that, Stahl said, he alternates between political parties when giving examples in class. Even so, many students have personal biases or political leanings that come into the class and can show through in their work.
“It’s pretty funny sometimes, because some kids are pretty savvy and knowledgeable about the issues, and it’s funny to hear how they word their descriptions of each party,” he said. “It seems like I spent a lot of time saying, ‘This is not a political rally, you are not here to cheer for your candidate.'”
Students at the Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus are able to take a more direct role in the election, as they are old enough to vote.
On Oct. 20, the first day of early voting, about 30 students organized at the college and walked down to the voting booths, said Linda Pruitt, coordinator of student life.
“That’s the first time we’ve had a big political gathering of students like that,” she said.
Students also gathered around big-screen televisions to watch the presidential and vice presidential debates in the residence halls.
“People were definitely getting into the debates,” said Tamara Coleman, student activities director. “Kids were talking back to the screens.”
The college will provide vans to drive students to the voting booths Tuesday.
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