Election Year Opportunities and Challenges

By Jerrold I. Katz, Head of School
September 28, 2016

RSS students and parents who have been lucky enough to see the Broadway production of Hamilton have had an uplifting two-plus hour reminder of the principles upon which our democracy was established in the U.S. Having the privilege of seeing Hamilton is an emotional far-cry from watching the news every night and pondering the current state of affairs in our nation. Yet, 2016 is, of course, a presidential election year and, therefore, a once-in-every-four-years opportunity to prepare our children for the most fundamental expression of citizenship – the right and responsibility to vote.

In an elementary school, it’s pretty clear that we’re in a presidential election year, when a Kindergarten student announces at meeting time that “My mommy says that we’re moving to Canada, if Candidate X becomes the President!”
 
How do kids at RSS understand the upcoming election? What teachable moments does a national election year provide? What role can parents play in the citizenship education of their children?

This year’s election brings some unusual challenges for our faculty. On the one hand, we remain committed at RSS to maintaining professional boundaries, not sharing our personal opinions, and ensuring respect for a variety of points of view. At the same time, this year, we have a responsibility to stand up for civility and respect for the dignity of others – core values of our mission as a Reform Jewish day school.

Of course, the key to this balancing act begins with a distinction among the ages of the children involved. For many young children, the idea of the President being someone important is clear enough, but it is often difficult to grasp the notion of one person being responsible for leading the entire country. Kids in Pre-K and Kindergarten have enough difficulty trying to understand my role as a leader of “all of Rodeph Sholom School.” For many children, it is the study of geography (50 states) and history in the elementary grades that provides their first real understanding of the U.S. as a nation. This understanding is deepened and extended throughout the middle school years, as students learn more about the principles upon which our founding fathers built our country and as they begin to gain insight into similarities and differences between our own and other world cultures.

There is much to be learned about how kids think by listening to the annual speeches given by candidates for RSS’s student council. There’s always a focus on the issues that matter most to students in the Middle School – recess, lunch, and homework. There’s always a reminder from adults not to vote for someone because that person is your friend, but because you believe he or she will represent you effectively. There is much to learn from the behavior of young voters, who often seem to prefer candidates who are “like themselves.”

By Middle School, many students at RSS certainly are interested in current events, and it is clear that they know a lot about the world around them. Furthermore, they are increasingly aware of what it means to lead, to make a difference, and to try to change something over time. Even in an election year when our current president is African-American and we have a female nominee from a major political party, kids notice when the pool of presidential candidates continues to be dominated by white men. They seem to care, in particular, about issues of social justice and the environment. The economy, taxes, healthcare, and the Supreme Court remain a little out of their league, although many RSS students are exposed to discussions of a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues both at school and at home.

Children do listen to what their parents have to say when reading the morning newspaper or watching the evening news, and I encourage you to tell your kids what’s important to you and why. I also hope that all RSS parents are going to vote on November 8th. There is no more powerful message about our responsibilities as citizens in a democracy than the one that is delivered by taking your children with you to the voting booth on Election Day. You may or may not want them to know how you voted. The privacy of each of our expressions of choice is also an important lesson to be learned.

We have a crisis in our country around participation in the democratic process. Students who attend a school like RSS have a special opportunity to choose to participate. Four years from now, many of our current eighth graders will be eligible to vote in the next presidential election. Those of us at school and all of you at home need to work together to make sure that the right and responsibility of voting is appreciated and practiced by those who grow up as members of our community.

This article was written by Jerrold I. Katz, Head of School and published in RSS Connect Volume 3, Issue 1.
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