Education

Ransom Everglades students fight political rhetoric with facts

Gregory Cooper, center, stands with his Ransom Everglades students on Tuesday February 23, 2016. The students worked to create an online voter guide to provide objective, comprehensive information on Republican and Democratic candidates vying for their respective parties' nominations in the 2016 presidential election.
Gregory Cooper, center, stands with his Ransom Everglades students on Tuesday February 23, 2016. The students worked to create an online voter guide to provide objective, comprehensive information on Republican and Democratic candidates vying for their respective parties' nominations in the 2016 presidential election. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

More than six months and almost 20 debates into the election cycle, there is as much rhetoric in the air as there is anticipation. When spectators aren’t asking themselves, “Who will prevail?,” they’re asking, “Who and what can we believe?”

The maelstrom of stump speeches, think pieces and hearsay dominating discourse inspired a group of Miami students to take matters into their own hands.

With the help of their advanced-placement U.S. government and politics teacher, 27 Ransom Everglades high schoolers created an online voter guide that cuts through talking points and, instead, provides facts.

Even if we can’t participate in the political process, we’re still making an effect.”

Corey Kraftsow, 17, junior at Ransom Everglades School

“There is so much access to information out there that is immediately at your fingertips that sometimes it’s hard to discern what is reliable,” said teacher Gregory Cooper, who helmed the project alongside students of his two AP U.S. government classes.

“Someone shares something on Facebook and you click on it, and then all of a sudden you’re convinced Justice [Antonin] Scalia was murdered by [President Barack] Obama,” Cooper said, to a chorus of his students’ chuckles. “There’s so much and it’s constant.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia died suddenly on Feb. 13.

The voter guide, which launched Feb. 1, the day of the Iowa Caucuses, is populated by information taken from more than 500 sources, such as Project Vote Smart, Politifact, candidates’ official campaign websites and debate transcripts. The data is divided into 13 policy areas, like immigration, environment and gun control, and presented in bullet form. Quotes are also included, contextualizing candidates’ stances through their own words.

The website was designed from top to bottom by juniors Joshua Glottmann, 16, and Zoe Tolon, 17.

There’s a difference between what needs to happen and can happen, and [voters] won’t know until they know the policies.”

Joshua Glottman, 16, junior at Ransom Everglades School

“With the voter guide, you get a better understanding of each candidate’s beliefs, so instead of just pointing fingers, and going, ‘Oh! They believe in this or that,’ or whatever, you can say what and why,” said Franklin Civantos, a 16-year-old junior in Cooper’s class who was in charge of researching candidates’ stances and voting records on race and ethnicity issues.

It wasn’t a single factor that inspired the idea for the voter guide, but a combination of reasons, Cooper and the students said. It was a collective disillusionment.

“We were reviewing for midterms … and we were just talking about the irresponsible language that’s thrown around in campaigns,” Cooper said.

Chiming in, senior Alexa Bishopric, 18, said, “Especially this one.”

“And the tone being so caustic … It was a general feeling,” Cooper added.

Amid the circus feel of it all, the students hope the guide will maneuver peers at varying levels of political literacy, be they wonks who are looking to get away from their talking head of choice or those who are entirely uninitiated and just echoing their parents’ ideologies.

“We’re young and getting our first exposure to the political process, so it’s important to make our own decisions,” said senior Mariana Sanchez-Medina, 18, who contributed research on gender- and sexual-orientation-related policies.

Although only a sliver of Ransom’s student body will be of age to vote in November’s general election, the guide has fueled more productive discourse on the already-political campus, started conversations at home and molded students’ lifelong approach to their civic duties.

“An important thing that I take away from this is to try to be careful with the way I speak about elections and the way I listen to other people speak about campaigns,” said Bishopric, a soon-to-be first-time voter and Bernie Sanders supporter. “I think that is something that will stay with me past this election, being able to be a more informed voter.”

Follow Debora Lima on Twitter @dtdlima

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