This week’s Maclean’s Magazine has a column by Emma Teitel titled “Get Them When They’re Young“. The argument is that we need to make a more concerted effort to teach students about government and civic literacy because “since the 70’s Canada has seen a decline in overall voter turnout driven by young people not voting at the same rate as their parents and grandparents.” I couldn’t agree more but it must go beyond knowing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of seats in the House and the names of our government leaders.
Last year I wrote a post about a unit we taught with our grade 5 students. The big idea of the unit was that “government affects our daily lives“. Throughout the unit students did their own research, had a number of guest speakers work with them and they eventually wrote letters around issues of importance to them.
This year our big idea was “Who Has the Power?” Essentially the students again explored the three levels of government in Canada, their responsibilities and how they impacted their own lives. What was different this year was that the students began to understand not only the importance of government, but that they in fact had the power to create change. Whether through conversations with their parents; letters, emails, phone calls or visits to their local representatives; or championing their own causes, the students discovered that their voice/opinion counts.
Now writing a letter to voice your opinion is important but what was most empowering for the students were the responses to their letters. I was so impressed with West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith and MLA Ralph Sultan for their personal responses to the students as they directly addressed the issues the students raised. Receiving a personal letter from a government official is a big deal to a ten year old.
If we want to positively impact voter turnout by “getting them when they are young”, then we need to not simply teach the systems and functions of government but demonstrate to children, in an authentic manner, that they have the power to make a difference. Whether it is more soccer fields, wait times at local medical clinics, litter on the beaches, polluted streams, traffic or a lack of street lights in their neighbourhood; our children are astute observers who care about the world around them. By empowering them now to know about government and more importantly experience the power of their voice, we plant the seed needed to develop active participation in our democracy in the future.