Presidential Choices Matter: Kid Edition
Photos by Michael Fried
*Editor's Note: First published on Medium.
“Would you like a president to help everyone, or only some people?”
“Should a president use his/her words to solve problems?
On the ballot were two candidates who had once campaigned in a partisan contest full of name-calling: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Fittingly, the headline-grabbing issues of some 200 years ago resonated with those of today: the Alien Acts made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and sanctioned deporting non-citizens who were deemed dangerous while the Sedition Acts restricted speech critical of the federal government. Also echoing current discussions were debates on the appropriate size and role of government.
The simulation model has roots in the research of University of Michigan lecturer Jeff Stanzler, who also directs the Interactive Communications and Simulations (ICS) group, along with his faculty colleagues, Michael Fahy and Jeff Kupperman. The group, based at the University of Michigan School of Education, creates and facilitates web simulations for upper elementary-, middle-, and high-school students. The model encourages the use of historical figures to address modern dilemmas through role play.
Weeks later, the argument was presented at the podium when the students debated as Adams and Jefferson, focusing on the size and role of government, the Alien and Sedition Acts and slavery. Striking was the cordial tenor; all the politicians were civilized and appropriate—because they had practiced many times.
Around the campaign tables school children huddled in conversation, engaged in history as an evolving dialogue. First-graders and second-graders crowded around the third and fourth graders, lolling questions about Jefferson and Adams. What are your major accomplishments? Why should I vote for you? Why couldn’t women vote in 1800? The kindergartners asked more basic questions. What is democracy? That afternoon, the 8- and 9-year-olds were the teachers, imparting lessons they had learned in class and on their own about their candidates and the electoral process.
Sitting on the sidelines, I thought to myself, “These children really know how to make a compelling argument—and how to consider the perspective of someone else.” Therein lay the seedlings of empathy.
In the end, history did repeat itself. Jefferson won, capturing 54.3 percent of the vote. And the even bigger winner? Livnat, 8, who gave Jefferson’s acceptance speech. She had originally sworn to her teacher that she would never speak in public—and then clamored to do so, overcoming her fear with great poise and confidence.
The Election of 1800 in 2016 taught my son and his peers that their voices count: in the classroom, at school, with the grownups. It also taught them that every voter, and every vote, counts.
So what swayed the youngest voters to choose Jefferson? For many kindergarteners, the winning ticket was whomever their older siblings had recommended. For others, it was the ice cream.
But one young voter, Yehonatan, 5, formulated a heuristic of his own.
“For me, it had to be Thomas Jefferson. He sounds just like Thomas the Tank Engine!”
Many a voter has chosen candidates for lesser reasons than that.