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Election Day in the Classroom

In Syracuse, NY, students are engaging in important conversations about Election Day 2020 in the classroom—even if they can't vote yet


Excited about using values of empathy and justice to reimagine more equitable classrooms. Big fan of Carole King's Tapestry album, hikes and politics podcasts.

(Image Source: Cult of Pedagogy)

As we reflect on the last election cycle, media headlines represent the focus of many: voter turnout. The Navajo Nation is a key community that helped flip Arizona, despite systemic barriers and young people turned out in record numbers for both major presidential candidates. This influx of civic engagement is incredible. But civic engagement is not just voting, especially for people who cannot yet cast their ballot.

As a 16-year-old, I was interested in looking at the impacts of the 2020 election on classrooms before November 3rd. How were students engaging with the pre-election cycle? Were conversations surrounding electoral races and policies happening in high schools? I sat down (socially-distanced and virtually) with students and educators in my school community in Syracuse, NY to hear their thoughts about these questions and more.

Zyonaha Glen, a 17-year old student-athlete in the Syracuse City School District, is taking Active Citizenship, which is very popular among the government class options required for graduation. In this class, she is able to participate in discussions regarding the election. Reflecting on these discussions, she told me, “it gives us an opportunity to express how we feel.”

Glen’s Active Citizenship teacher, Aaron Jaeger, regularly integrates current events and the 2020 election into his classes at Nottingham High School. He sees these discussions in class and broader civic engagement as “ubiquitous” and “unavoidable.” But after our conversation, it seems that these discussions are truly discussions — a two way street for both the educator and students to interact. Jaeger told me that as compared to previous years, “more conversations are started and driven by students. More questions are being asked, and the closer we get to November, it continues to feel like there’s a political awareness unlike anything I’ve experienced in schools before.”

I’ve known Mr. Jaeger for a year or two now, and it is no secret that his students really enjoy his class. This increased engagement in both his Active Citizenship class and 9th grade Early World History class stands out to me that the election has really been on students’ minds.

Also on students’ minds is the new Civil Rights Movement that has spread across our nation and inspired anti-racist action, including action to the polls. Joyce Suslovic, who’s known to her U.S. History students as Ms. S., incorporates this movement into her lessons. As she began curriculum this school year with the Colonial Period, Suslovic has paralleled the 16th and 17th centuries with modern-day events.

In the post-Columbus era, she described that “you look at the original dissenters…who stood up against England…and they were people that everyone holds in high esteem now.” Suslovic then noted the contrast with how we look at those colonial dissenters to how some look down on the people dissenting in the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement as they fight for issues including voter suppression. She added that many groups doing racial justice work here in Syracuse, including Last Chance for Change and Rebirth SYR, are led by some of her former students.

This discussion of parallels and double standards in history is a frequent topic in her classes, particularly in her section that is completely made up of English Language Learners (ELL). Additional discussions have stemmed from diverse classrooms like this one, including a group of ELL students at the North Side Learning Center in Syracuse. Suslovic shared with me that “so many are so frustrated that they are not able to vote…and their parents too…they want to vote against a person who would call countries they came from ‘shithole countries.’”

Like Suslovic emphasized, elections are especially significant for our school community. My peers have diverse needs with 18% being English Language Learners and 86% economically disadvantaged. Policies on the ballot have real consequences for us and our school.

“Our school district will be affected because the families that comprise our district will be affected,” says Nadia Essi. Ms. Essi is a Living Environment teacher in the Syracuse City School District and is a graduate of our schools herself. Despite not teaching a class like Active Citizenship or U.S. History that people typically associate with current events, Essi is still noticing the same trend in student interest that other educators I spoke with are.

However, she also believes educators hold the responsibility to keep students interested and grow that interest. “When we, as teachers, create a space in our classrooms where students feel comfortable asking questions and having conversations, they tend to bring up the election and things that are happening in our community and country on their own.” She also added, “As teachers, it’s our job to create these safe spaces so that these important conversations are had.”

It is important for teachers of all subjects to show up in ways that Ms. Essi describes so that students like Asmita Bhattarai can have a meaningful space to learn more about how the election has impacted her. Asmita is a senior in high school and can’t vote yet. But she told me that “I honestly think this is the most involved I’ve gotten in any election. I feel like it is the most important one. It’s the election where I can’t vote, but the turnout will definitely affect me.”

We have been invested in this election for weeks, even months, in our schools. Even as Joe Biden has been declared President-elect and down-ballot races have been announced, I’ve continued to participate in classroom discussions reflecting on the election. We are still invested. I implore all registered voters and active citizens to continue to be invested as well — every single day. Will you be?