Civics lesson: Election is a teachable moment for kids

Adults aren’t the only ones who have been lining up at the polls to cast their vote for this year’s presidential election. Students at St. Hugh Catholic School and Belen Jesuit Preparatory were among the tens of thousands of students across the country in grades K-12 that participated in a series of mock elections.

Out of several mock elections, St. Hugh chose to participate in Studies Weekly’s nationwide mock presidential election last week, in which President Barack Obama won by a landslide with 79 percent of the electoral vote and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with slightly more than a quarter of the vote.

The national election results were not reflected at St. Hugh, where Romney won with 65 percent of the vote.

“Regardless of the result, the fact that kids are enthusiastically voting a week in advance is great,” said Antonio Cejas, principal at the school in Coconut Grove. “They actually looked forward to voting through the school and are also interested in the result of the real 2012 election, and we hope this will encourage them to vote as adults.”

Before the election, students in grades K-8 had to undergo the Studies Weekly social studies curriculum, provided to teachers, which helped students understand the candidates’ platforms, the requirements to vote and run for office, and the complexities of the voting system.

Eduardo Anasagasti, a social studies teacher for grades 6-8 at St. Hugh, assigned students to read newspapers to keep up with current events, especially the coverage of the debates.

“I ask them to read the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and other papers to get them involved in the social issues,” Anasagasti said. “Adolescence is the perfect time to have them open up to the world around them especially younger kids that only see themselves.”

Anasagasti said that while most eighth-graders start to become independent thinkers, most younger students vote like their parents or peers, which he encourages them not to do.

“As part of my teaching I tell them, ‘Don’t just repeat what you hear, think about it, and then make an intelligent choice,’ ” he said.

Galia Pennekamp, whose daughter Ivy is in the fifth grade, said that before the election, she made sure Ivy understood what the candidates stood for.

“But most importantly I made sure that she understood that she needs to do what’s right and not what’s popular,” said Pennekamp, a registered Independent.

Ivy said that this year she was voting for Obama like her mother, who has voted for Republican candidates in the past.

“I am voting for Obama because it seems that it is true what the ads say about him,” said Ivy. “But sometimes, when I am on the Internet, there are commercials on YouTube that say one thing that is not a fact. It’s weird.”

To obtain factual information, Ivy said that she asked her parents or watched the debates with her family — sometimes even by herself.

“My child is very aware that she is in the minority among her peers as a Democrat in this school, and she is proud to be a Democrat,” said Pennekamp.

Roberto Lizama, 39, also found himself reading both candidates’ platforms to his son Robby, 8, and Emma, 6.

“I am more on the conservative side,” said Lizama. “But what did happen was that Robby made a reference to how Romney had worked and how Obama has always been in politics.”

“I am voting for Romney because he is helping Staples and Sports Authority and others. He did mess up when he started making speeches but he has messed up less than Obama,” said Robby, who is in third grade.

At Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Miami-Dade, students held a mock election using an electronic ballot, designed by the social studies and technology departments at the all-boys school, grades 6-12.

Romney won at Belen, too — with 66 percent of the vote in an election held Monday.

“We didn’t endorse any candidates,” said Patrick Collins, social studies department chairman. “We didn’t change the language to make it easier. It was the same content that was on the real ballot.”

Matthew Pastor, 16, who voted for Obama despite his parents being Republicans, was one of the many students that turned on their iPads to access a link in their email, where they were given an access code for the ballot.

The mock election was conducted through Survey Monkey, an online survey and questionnaire tool that guaranteed that each student voted once. Miami-Dade public school students also voted via Survey Monkey.

“Through this program we avoid students from going back and making multiple votes,” said Carol Vila, Belen’s director of technology. “Had we not used Survey Monkey, we probably wouldn’t have been able to prevent students from going back and voting again.”

Even though the school tested the program three weeks prior to elections, paper ballots were used as back-up.

“It was a very easy to do,” said Pastor, “and it is preparing students like me that will vote in the next real election to become familiarized with the process.”

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