Ideas for High School Students to Engage with Politics
January 14, 2021 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Calling all educators! And everyone else with ideas on how to provide opportunities for high school students to get their voices heard. What have you done with your students to empower them to engage politically? What ideas do you have for how I might help my own students do so?

I am a High School English teacher. My 10th graders are an amazing bunch with strong opinions and concerns about our society. We are doing a unit on the American Dream and today's classes delightfully turned into me providing a safe space for them to share their thoughts and feelings on the Capitol siege.

They've asked me to help them get their voices heard and for ways they can make a difference. It's been decades since I myself was a politically engaged high school student and I'm looking for ideas on things I can bring them. My ideas so far:

-we already have a unit on argumentative writing coming up, and I'm planning to have them write letters to their representatives and letters to the editor.
-they are all creative writers and just wrote dystopian short stories that speak to an issue in our modern society. These are phenomenal and I plan to find ways to publish them, perhaps on a blog I create for our class.

I appreciate any other ideas and suggestions! I am so proud of these students and want them to feel like their thoughts and opinions matter and can positively influence the world.
posted by nancynickerson to Education (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The League of Women Voters has a High School Voter Registration Project.

In many states it is possible for teenagers to pre-register, so that they would automatically be registered to vote when they turn 18.

There are also many techniques that have been shown to increase voter turnout among teenagers. For example, visiting local polling stations, having in-school elections using real voting equipment (whatever is used in your state), or accompanying someone over 18 to vote.

The goal is the demystify and normalize voting, and make it a natural and well understood part of growing older.

10th grade is a little on the young side, but I'm sure there's still a lot you could do.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:58 PM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Teach them what actual politics looks like - watch livestreams or recordings of legislative sessions, especially city council rather than state or national.
Have them practice sorting out people's political opinions based on what they say and how they vote in session.

Teach them how to use Robert's Rules of Order.
Have class sessions where they use parliamentary process: open a meeting, record minutes, bring proposals, and so on. Give them a set of boundaries ("can't decide there won't be homework or tests") and see what they can come up with--volunteers to recap recent lessons at the start of a class session? Planning homework that involves current events? Deciding on accessibility features?

Show them how voting works. Get sample ballots from recent elections, and have them look up the candidates (and measures, if you've got those) for downballot races. ("Find out what this person running for District 3 Transportation Director actually believes" is a hell of an assignment.)

If there's enough time, go from there to "How does a political office work?" Who actually reads the mail; who does the legal research involved with proposing new laws or changes; who answers the phone and what records do they keep of all that?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:31 PM on January 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Don't forget to look at local issues! When I was in high school a science teacher of mine had us take stopwatches out to an intersection near the school that had a seemingly high number of accidents, and time the stoplight. He sent the data in to the city and actually got the timing on the lights changed because it wasn't up to code / safe for the traffic levels there. That's always stuck with me as an example of something I was involved in that brought about a real change even if small, which can be motivating in a way that trying to engage with national or even state-level politics doesn't always offer.
posted by augustimagination at 1:34 PM on January 14, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Tip O'Neill said that all politics is local -- so have them write a persuasive letter to a government body at the lowest possible level (i.e., your town or neighborhood or whatever). More funding for activities they like, ideas for new programming, or a defense of something they like are all good places to start.

Make them watch the meetings of the body they are writing to. Have them compare minutes from a previous meeting of the same group, to learn how all that talk turns into a few lines of text.

(I am teaching the Citizenship in the Nation merit badge to some Scouts again tonight, and I salute you in this effort!)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:50 PM on January 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Definitely local politics. I never learned a damn thing about that in school and I really wish I had!
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:17 PM on January 14, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Youth participatory action research projects are the best way to get young people interested in politics. I worked at a school where they did these (middle school) and even now I see those kids (now adults themselves) politically active. It was an amazing transformation, and one thing that they participated in, a youth fee for public transportation was actually implemented.
Here are some links with guidelines:
Youth-led Participatory Action Research
Youth Participatory Action Research Toolkit
Democratic Knowledge Project by Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics
posted by momochan at 2:21 PM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Your students (and anyone really) has the opportunity to make a big impact at the local level. It's surprisingly easy to connect with staff and elected and to have your voice heard on issues that matter to you. Here are things you can do.

Have your students form small groups based on their interest in a particular issue and then have them research any bills that the state legislature is working on. They can write letters, testify, follow the bill, connect with local advocacy groups that also care about the issue. Your students can sign-up to get alerts on the bills they decide to follow so they can track them all the way through the process.

Have your students attend/watch a city council meeting, then talk about what they observed. What surprised them? What was boring? Have them make a plan to testify at an upcoming city council hearing.

Invite one of your local or state government officials to come do a Q&A with your class. I can guarantee that they would be thrilled. People are always surprised to learn how accessible their local and state elected officials are, but they really are!

I bet your local government is working on a variety of projects right now where they are seeking public input. It could be a climate change plan, designing a local park, city planning. Have students go to the city website and look at what projects are going on and how the city is looking for input - surveys, online community meetings, discussion forums, etc. Invite the city staffer in charge of that project to meet with students (they will do this).
posted by brookeb at 3:00 PM on January 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was in high school, there was this thing called Kids Voting where they'd set up fake polling stations for kids at real polling stations. So like, if you went to vote with your parents, instead of just standing around, you could get a Kids Voting ballot and there would be Kids Voting poll workers and stuff. My best friend and I were poll workers in the 96 general election (coincidentally, at the same polling place where my grandpa was a real poll worker). That was a fun experience.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:23 PM on January 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Girl Scouts have civic engagement badges at every level, and your 10th graders would be Seniors. Scroll down here to "Life Skills Activities," and you'll see some relevant at-home activities on topics including federal spending and how voting works.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:17 PM on January 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This article is about an educator who teaches a high school social justice class, which might align well with what you want to do. The article has links to some of the projects her students did as their final assignments. She has a very local focus, which I think is a great way to show kids that they can accomplish change at a local level through advocating to municipal leaders.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:53 PM on January 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd talk to the teachers of Civics/Government at your school and get their suggestions, too!

They can also think about applying to Girls State or Boys State as rising seniors. It's an incredible experience. They can volunteer at local municipal offices, get in touch with local campaigns, interview local politicians and bureaucrats. They can read biographies and memoirs of politicians and activists for inspiration, etc. People and orgs outside the US are worth learning about, too. Students can find people and groups on Instagram, near and far, to follow and study for their own activism/citizenship.

A big thing to be mindful of is that not all of your students are probably US citizens and some may be undocumented. You always want to encourage kids to speak their minds but also never force someone to send in their letter, register to vote on the spot, etc. Always give people the option to take something home or do it later because you don't want to put anyone on the spot.

Also to consider is that, while the vast majority of your students are probably very liberal, some are more conservative so you want to make sure no one feels shamed. Of course, yes, we are very against all this hateful white supremacist shit. What I mean is like, if you are making a reading list, include a book by John McCain or Ronald Reagan along with more progressive people. As a high school teacher, I have always worked to help empower and amplify the voices of students who of People of Color, queer, lower income, etc. but I am 100% supportive of all students. I was pleasantly surprised to see some white students from more conservative backgrounds really stand up in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. For example, a student from a devout Christian background found No White Saviours as a NGO that works to dismantle the white savior complex in international development, aid, and missions. She's now a vocal supporter of BLM in her small town and spends a lot of time engaging with the conservative people in her family and church. I reiterate what many posters have said above: local is a great way to start, whether it's community organizing or merely engaging in difficult conversations with the people closest to you.

Good luck! You're already on the right track and doing a wonderful thing to help your students feel empowered and help!
posted by smorgasbord at 8:55 PM on January 14, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all amazing ideas and so very helpful! Kevinbelt, I did the exact same thing as you in 1996!

smorgasbord, I really appreciate your comments re: making space for conservative students. I have one student who wrote a moving essay about feeling ostracized at our school due to being one of very few students who identifies as a conservative. I definitely am keeping this in mind, and planning to focus it around issues that matter to them personally vs. "here are the things your progressive teacher think you should care about".

I am excited to use these ideas as I plan--thank you all!
posted by nancynickerson at 9:45 AM on January 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

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