Ruth Ebenstein is an American Israeli writer, historian and health and peace activist — and mother of three boys in elementary school. Born in California and reared in Michigan, she moved to Jerusalem days after graduating from Northwestern University and has lived there since. Ebenstein and her husband planned a sabbatical year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., and said they were both excited to share with their children the dynamism and vigor of a U.S. presidential election.
That was before. Now, the kids are in school and the campaign debates have gotten ugly. She said the rhetoric and subject matter are inappropriate for her sons, and she and her husband wondered how they would keep them appropriately engaged and provide avenues for them to think about the issues for themselves.
Laura Pasek, her middle son’s third-grade teacher at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor, offered a creative, exhilarating, well-crafted solution. Ebenstein said Pasek’s efforts have galvanized the entire school and reminded her of “the hope, joy and empowerment that can be found in educating our children.” In this post, Ebenstein explains just how Pasek decided to teach her students about elections without getting into the muck of the current one.
By Ruth Ebenstein
“Guess what we heard in the campaign speech today, Mom?” said Eitan, my 8-year-old son, dropping his olive-green backpack and recorder in the passenger’s side of the front seat of our SUV. He plopped down next his two brothers in the back seat and cleared his throat.
“Always stand on principle even if you stand alone.”
Such lofty language, I thought to myself. Which candidate said that?
“I liked the rebuttal even better,” quipped Yuval, my 10-year-old. He ruffled pages in his notebook to find a quote he’d written down.
“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. I will make sure that America is safe.”
Looking in the rearview mirror, I locked eyes with my boys.
The back seat erupted into rolling laughter.
“John Adams — and Thomas Jefferson!”
They were quoting from the speeches of the presidential election of 1800, when incumbent John Adams, a Federalist, faced off with Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican.
That was the solution that Eitan’s General Studies teacher had come up with to teach her young students about the elections — without teaching this presidential election.
“I felt that some of the messages coming out of this campaign were inappropriate for kids ages 8 to 10,” said Laura Pasek, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Hebrew Day School in Ann Arbor, Mich. “And their methods of engagement did not model respectful and intellectual debate.”
So she found a creative way to authentically engage my son and his classmates in how a national conversation ought to take place: by looking into our past. “My curriculum already included the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, so I thought, ‘Why not move it up three years to the election of 1800?’ ” she said.
The fit was even better than she initially realized. The major issues of the time included the Alien and Sedition Acts, slavery, states’ rights vs. federal power, some of which still hound our country today. Adams supported Congress’s passing a law that immigrants had to live in the country for 14 years rather than five to vote so that foreigners wouldn’t influence the election and the political process in general. Another common element: an emotional and hard-fought election campaign that reflected a bitter partisan battle.
Ms. Pasek began the election simulation by writing this quote on the blackboard:
“You’re not entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to your informed opinion.”
My son and his classmates rolled up their sleeves and dived into learning the election process from start to finish: primaries, conventions, debates, elections, inauguration. Lessons were woven into every subject: writing, reading, debating, social studies, and even math (in terms of understanding the electoral votes).
Working in a collaborative way, students created campaign slogans, logos, and mock interviews with historical figures such as James Madison, in addition to Adams and Jefferson. They covered school hallways with colorful campaign posters: “Big Ideas, Big Dreams! Vote Thomas Jefferson” and “Vote John Adams! John is fond to make a new beginning.”
The simulation is being informed by the research of University of Michigan Professor Jeff Stanzler, director of the Interactive Communications & Simulations (ICS) group, which creates and facilitates Web simulation for a worldwide network of upper elementary, middle school and high school students, and his colleagues, professors Michael Fahy and Jeff Kupperman.
In September, they advised Ms. Pasek on how to adapt their program to get younger students to take on the perspective of historical figures. Other perks of living in a university town: Richard Primus, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan, broke down the election process and election context into terms the third- and fourth-grade students could understand. Serendipitously, the election of 1800 falls into his area of expertise. Eve Brensike Primus, his wife and a criminal law professor, taught the class debating skills and strategies, as well as debate etiquette. Their daughter, Jessica, a third-grader in Ms. Pasek’s class, has assumed the role of Thomas Jefferson for the duration of the campaign.
As the students created campaign ads for television, print and radio, they learned how hard it is to not slide into negative campaigning. “John Adams wants to turn this country into a dump” was deemed negative without being respectful, informative and relevant; it was subsequently taken down. The students did not realize the irony of their chosen location: they’d posted it in the school bathroom.
Engaging, open-ended questions have filled the classroom. If Benjamin Franklin had been alive in 1800, who would he have supported? What would James Madison have said about Thomas Jefferson? What would John Adams have done had he been elected for a second term in office? Authenticity lends well to student engagement. My son and his classmates study YouTube videos of President Obama and other excellent orators to learn their skills. The fascination with Hamilton, the current Broadway runaway hit and the historical persona upon which is based, have only fueled greater interest.
“Because the election of 1800 was really nasty, it’s almost like we get to redo it,” said Ms. Pasek. “Students are making claims that aren’t historically accurate, but rather reflect their own thinking, like the John Adams camp promising to abolish slavery if elected to a second term.”
On Oct. 20, the third- and fourth-graders at Hebrew Day School will hold their own live presidential debate, where they will discuss major issues of 1800. Colonial wigs have been ordered. Patriotic fabric bunting border decorations will line the stage. And of course, a requisite Betsy Ross flag.
I think back to those tenuous times, the fragile days when the American Constitution had been in effect for a mere 11 years. Jefferson’s win marked the first peaceful transition of political power between opposing parties in U.S. history. His inaugural address called for reconciliation, declaring that “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
So who are you going to vote for? I ask my sons.
“Thomas Jefferson,” Eitan said, a smile stretched across his face. “He was the first to introduce ice cream to the United States.”
“True,” granted Yuval. “But you can’t deny this: He signed the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal,’ yet he owned hundreds of slaves.”
On Nov. 4, their entire school — kindergarten to fifth grade — will cast their ballots for John Adams or Thomas Jefferson.
But I can already tell you who the winner is: our kids.