Hundreds of voters showed up at Potowmack Elementary School on Oct. 28, stated their address, logged on to an election website and cast their vote for president of the United States.
Although their votes won’t decide who will be the next president — it being a mock election — students at the Sterling school got a taste of how America’s brand of democracy works.
The mock election was the culmination of a month-long educational project led by school librarian Michele Rzewski-Copeland. In their weekly visits to the school library, students learned about the candidates, political parties and the electoral college. Students in grades 3 through 5 conducted research through child-friendly websites and books.
“It’s teaching the research process with a purpose,” Rzewski-Copeland said. “I’m teaching kids how to access information and what credible sources are.”
Because students in all grades participated in the project, library staff members tailored the content and teaching methods for each level. Rzewski-Copeland read stories about elections to the younger children, some of whom are still learning to read. Older students visited child-oriented websites, such as Time for Kids and Scholastic, to do research.
This is the third mock presidential election that Rzewski-Copeland has organized at the school. But she made some adjustments this year because of the divisiveness of the campaign and the sensitivity of issues such as immigration and deportation. The focus was more on the candidates’ biographies than the issues, and students were urged to discuss the election with their parents, rather than one another.
“It’s a volatile election season, with a lot of debating between adults,” library assistant Lynn Chiang said. “And the kids hear that, and they do develop strong opinions.”
Chiang said she was surprised at the level of interest some of the younger children showed in the election.
“There were some, even at the first-grade level, [who] were extremely interested and wanted to learn — not just about who’s running, and that there’s a female candidate, and that that’s new and different — but how it works,” Chiang said.
The voting process was conducted through the Youth Leadership Initiative website, which is affiliated with the University of Virginia. Although the kindergartners used paper ballots with pictures of the candidates, older students logged on to the website to cast their votes.
To teach the children about voter registration requirements, library staff members asked them to state their name and address before allowing them to vote. That proved to be an educational experience for some.
“You’d be surprised how many children have no idea what an address is, much less what theirs is,” Chiang said.
Two days after the vote, a small group of students assembled in the library to await the announcement of the results. All said they had enjoyed learning about the election.
“It was fun,” third-grader Eli Wike said. “You got to vote like grown-ups.”
Fifth-grader Arjun Setty said he liked researching the candidates and learning about their policies. In particular, he thought it was “cool” that Hillary Clinton had proposed “raising taxes for the rich and using those taxes to put into services like education and alternative energy.
“Some of this motivated me to be a politician when I grow up,” Arjun said.
Most reacted with cheers when the announcement came: Hillary Clinton had won the school’s mock election with 65 percent of the vote, followed by Donald Trump with 19 percent. Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Evan McMullin trailed with percentages in the low single digits.
Rzewski-Copeland said she hopes that learning about the election will motivate the students to become involved and informed when they are old enough to vote for real.
“That, to me, is what’s important,” she said. “You don’t just go in and vote for someone who looks the same as them. There’s a way to find out the facts.”