What do you do if you are a high school history teacher who becomes frustrated with his students' lack of knowledge of and enthusiasm for the electoral process here in the United States? On the one hand, you could easily become very cynical about the youth of America today. Or you could try to do something about it, and that is exactly what my colleague Lorrie Byrom and I decided to do here at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts back in the spring of 1988.
After teaching a particularly ineffective and apparently uninspiring lesson on the Electoral College and how the president is chosen in the United States today (teenagers never hold anything back!), I felt the need to find a more creative and fun way to generate interest and enthusiasm among my students for this crucial aspect of American democracy. That day over 24 years ago marked the genesis of what was to become the V.O.T.E.S. Project, a nation-wide high school mock election involving more than 100 high schools and upwards of 60,000 students. We have held seven mock presidential elections to date.
The idea behind V.O.T.E.S., which stands for Voting Opportunities for Teenagers in Every State, was to find a way to engage students across the country in a more hands-on and experiential way in the actual political process. I have always been a firm believer that students learn best when they are actively engaged in their own learning and not merely passive recipients of knowledge from a teacher or a book. And teaching students about the importance of voting and active citizenship in our democracy is so crucial that it demands our most engaging and effective teaching techniques. These students, after all, are our future and to write them off merely because they are not yet old enough to vote or even worse, to turn them off of politics because they can't relate to our traditional methods of teaching, could have serious repercussions for our country down the road.
So we decided to invite two high schools (one public and one private) from every state and the District of Columbia to hold a mock election in their school the week before the national election and to send their results to us here at Northfield Mount Hermon. We would then compile the results from the 100+ schools across the country and simulate the way that the Electoral College actually works by adding together the "popular vote" total from the two schools in the state to determine which candidate won that states' electoral votes. Unlike most other mock elections I know of, the V.O.T.E.S. Project teaches students about how the Electoral College actually works in real life by using that as the way we determine our V.O.T.E.S. election winner.
Meanwhile, here at Northfield Mount Hermon, all fall long students have been actively "doing" politics. Students have served as campaign managers and staff workers on campus for four of the political parties on our V.O.T.E.S. ballot (Democratic, Republican, Green and Libertarian), while others have each represented one of the candidates and debated in front of the entire student body of their peers. "Get-out-the-vote" workers have been educating students about the importance of voting in a democracy and generating interest and excitement for our mock election on campus.
Most recently, on Sunday evening, November 4, we set up our gymnasium to simulate a television studio. Students served as political analysts, interviewers, and political "features correspondents" as the evening's events were videotaped and the audio was broadcast live over the Internet. Student "anchorpeople" announced the results from the nation-wide V.O.T.E.S. mock election state by state until at about 9:00 pm when the state of Ohio put President Obama over the top with the requisite 270 electoral votes needed to win.
While the true goal of the V.O.T.E.S. Project is to educate and excite students about the electoral process, an interesting side note is that we have been accurate in choosing the actual national winner in five of the six elections since the project was created (as of this writing we don't yet know the outcome of this year's actual election).
One great addition to the long-standing tradition of the V.O.T.E.S. Project was our involvement this year with a company called StudySync, a company whose goal it is to help teachers inspire higher levels of critical thinking and academic collaboration in the classroom.
For several years now, we here at Northfield Mount Hermon wanted to enhance the technology component of our mock election project by finding a way for students across the country to discuss and debate important issues with each other in a fun and exciting way. We know teenagers are so focused on Facebook and Twitter and technology that we wanted to meet them in the world where they live and feel so comfortable in. So StudySync created a series of online issue poll questions called "blasts" that were sent out every Monday this fall to start the school week. Students here at NMH and at many of the other V.O.T.E.S. schools across the country could then log on to the StudySync web site and engage each other in a national conversation about many of the critical political issues of the day. And my students absolutely loved this fun exchange of ideas with students from across the country. Whenever I told my class to bring their computers to class because it was a "StudySync Day," there was an audible cheer. One of the things they most enjoyed about these "blasts" was that not only were they interacting with their peers across the country in a meaningful way through these online discussions but the students were also allowed to grade other student responses to these poll questions. This created some really fun intellectual competition between students in my classes and around the country as they all wanted to post a response that received the highest grades. Again, students seem to learn best when they are actively involved in their own learning and StudySync helped many students involved in V.O.T.E.S. do exactly that.
Never has it been more critical for teachers to find creative ways to demonstrate to students the importance of active citizenry and voting, for they are the lifeblood of our democracy. If we teachers can educate our students about the electoral process and, even more important, generate in them a genuine love and enthusiasm for politics our country will be better off for many years to come. Over the years, the V.O.T.E.S. Project has been just one small effort to try to harness the natural energy and idealism of our students to create an interest in politics that will last a lifetime.
For more information about the V.O.T.E.S. Project check out our web page at www.votes2012.org.