Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Heart Of Self Governance

Last Wednesday, the first words out of 4-year-old Calder's mouth when he arrived at school were, "Did you watch Obama's speech?" It shamed me to admit I hadn't. Tuesday had been a long day for me, starting at 4 a.m.  I'd forced myself to stay awake until I knew which horses had crossed the finish line first, then crawled into bed.

As the rest of the children filed in, many of them let us know for whom they had "voted," celebrating with one another not in victory, but rather in finding kindred souls. Our school is located in what is arguably the most politically progressive neighborhood in what may be the most politically progressive Congressional districts in the US, so it didn't surprise me that the Democratic candidate won our classroom's impromptu exit poll in a landslide.

During the run-up to the election, far more children than usual asked me for whom I had voted, a question I answered by talking about the importance of a secret ballot. Our state recently converted to universal mail-in voting, so the kids had likely seen their parents blackening in dots on their ballots at home. At first I'd been opposed to the idea, regretting the loss of the voting booths to which I'd often dragged my own preschool aged child by way of exposing her to one of the fundamental responsibilities of living in a democracy, but this year changed my mind. In the past, maybe one of two kids would broached the subject of elections, while this year not only did dozens of them, unprompted, talk about election year politics, but many of them expressed very strong opinions, not always in line with those of their parents. Even more exceptional was that they also shared opinions about other races and ballot issues beyond the top-line presidential one, which is exceedingly rare. 

This was a hard-fought campaign in parts of the country, with billions spent on advertising, and if that had been the case in our state, maybe I would attribute this new-found preschooler interest in the election to that, but it was pretty much politics as usual here in Washington state, other than it being our first vote-by-mail presidential election, so I think I'm safe in assuming that it was this more than anything else that sparked their enthusiasm.

I love the idea that families sat down together around the dining room table to discuss their ballots, to air the issues; this opportunity for parents to explain why it is they vote they way they do, to answer their children's questions and listen to their thoughts. Two years ago, my ballot in front of me, my then 14-year-old daughter gave a reasoned argument regarding a ballot initiative she'd been assigned to defend in a classroom debate, and over which I'd been struggling, swaying me to her side. This year she made cases for several other ballot measures, all based upon her own research. (As an aside, I find it interesting that her focus has been much more on ballot measures than candidates.)

I've often written that in my view, one supported by our nation's founders, that the highest purpose of schools in a democracy is to educate children for their role as citizens. There is simply no way to fulfill the promises of self-governance without a well-educated population, one well versed in the habits of citizenship. This is why the children at Woodland Park learn about voting and making their own rules. This is why we adhere in to the law of natural consequences. This is why we strive to avoid bossing the children around with directives like, "Sit here," or "Put the blocks away." This is why I actively teach children to question authority and why we celebrate when they engage in civil disobedience and, in fact, to be suspicious of anyone insisting on their obedience.

It's only right that teachers strive to adhere to the civics side of things, but this year the kids brought the nation's politics into the classroom all on their own, echoing their family's dining room table conversations in their conversations with me and one another. Children may not have a vote, but they do have a stake. Our children may not grow up to vote the way we do, that's the risk of raising a child to be a critical thinker, but hopefully we'll always be able to sit around the dining room table with our ballots and talk, because that's the heart of self-governance.

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