Monday, January 4, 2016

What Happens When Voters Become Educated On The Issues

Every year, I take my 9th grade core classes through two essay-writing experiences, one each semester.
This year, our district provided Chromebooks for each English class, so researching had to include using the new devices.
As we have an election coming up, I decided to have their 1st semester essay topic be "Who would make the best US President in 2016?"  Now that the semester is drawing to a close and the assignment is all but over (although I will still be accepting late essays until this Friday), I thought I'd blog about some surprises I got along the way.
I teach in a working class area.  Most such areas in Utah are highly conservative and highly Republican.  I really and truly expected to have to grade a whole bunch of essays extolling the virtues of Donald Trump.
I set up the assignment by explaining to the kids that in 2012, a lot of people voted for or against Obama or Romney based on skin color or religion.  I told them I hoped they would learn how foolish that was as they researched for their own essays.  I also reminded them that, while they cannot vote in 2016, they will be old enough for the 2020 election.
The kids were assigned to choose three "hot topics" they considered important: education, immigration, women's rights, gun rights/gun control, taxes, transportation, military issues.  I modeled for them how to begin at a given neutral website listing all candidates from all parties, instructing them that they must research four candidates from at least two parties.  Each day, I chose a different candidate's website and a different hot topic to model.  Other than telling the kids that I didn't think Trump's ideas were very practical, I was very careful not to let my own political preferences show; I merely showed the kids how to find information, how to take notes, how to construct the essay.
The results were almost entirely surprising.
I assumed they'd mostly write about Trump, as he was the only candidate of whom they'd heard, and it was clear that many of their parents were impressed by Trump.  I assumed no one would write about taxes (that turned out to be right), I assumed the Republican essays would "win" by a landslide, I assumed a sizable percentage of the kids would opt not to "vote" by not doing their essays (that was correct), I assumed no boys would write about women's rights and that no one would touch the abortion issue, I assumed many girls would go for Fiorina, as the Republican female choice, I assumed their would be much verbal abuse of Hillary.
My first surprise came when kids began to discover that Fiorina's website was useless.  They got mad that it said nothing about her positions on the issues.  Kids resented that she had nothing to say.
Not a single student in either class wrote about Fiorina.
My next surprise was how mad kids got when a few candidates dropped out; kids were miffed when they'd liked what the candidates said and then couldn't use it.
But the biggest surprise of all came when kids finished the research and began to write their essays.  Let me show you the results:
As of this writing, only 31 essays I have been handed in.  That's less than half of the students, although I expect at least five or six more kids will hand things in this week.  This part is no surprise; many kids are just plain lazy.
Of the 31, the "votes" were as follows:

Chris Christie: 1
Ben Carson: 2
Marco Rubio: 1
Bernie Sanders: 4
Hillary Clinton: 23

I was stunned.  As the kids researched, I thought Carson would be the favorite, as he's conservative, Republican, and has an easy-to-use website.  But it was Clinton by a landslide.
Most of the kids chose gun issues, healthcare, immigration, and either women's rights or education as their hot topics.  Hillary has a lot to say on those issues, and the kids -- even though most of them are very pro-gun rights -- thought she made sense.
And not a single kid who did the assignment even took notes on Trump.  One look at his website, and they saw how silly his ideas were.
Also, I tallied up women's issues:

Kids who wrote about women's rights:
Girls: 11
Boys: 4
Kids who wrote about abortion rights:
Girls: 3
Boys: 2
Kids who were anti-abortion:
Girls: 0
Boys: 0

(Keep in mind that I only helped kids understand what they were reading.  I helped them pick out things like women's pay, healthcare, etc.  If a candidate was indeed talking about abortion, it was often hard for the kids to grasp it through the rhetoric, so I would indicate what it really meant, and then tell the kids they could choose to agree or not.  I never told them what I thought about the issue.)

Things that did not surprise me: I had only 48% "voter" turn out and guns and immigration were of big interest to my students.
Things that did surprise me: Kids who had been pre-disposed toward ultra-conservatism and Republicans, once they actually researched the issues, found the less-extreme Democrat candidate to be the most appealing.

I thought I'd be reading about Trump.  I ended up reading about Hillary Clinton.
I could not be more pleased -- unless more kids had actually done the work.  :D

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