Preparing Students for Election Day

November 3 will see an Election Day that, by most measures, holds particular significance—and that’s true even for those not yet old enough to vote.
“We’re in the midst of the most important presidential election of our lifetimes,” says Ellie Layish ’24, and though she hasn’t seen many presidential elections yet, it’s hard to contest the point. Knowing how fraught the current election cycle has been, Rivers has taken seriously its responsibility to educate students—fully and impartially—about the political process. 

Leading the charge has been the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), the Rivers initiative launched in fall 2018 with the stated mission of equipping students to exert positive influence in public life. “Our approach to this historic election has been twofold,” explains Dr. Amy Enright, CCCE director. “First, Rivers faculty in many classes—eighth-grade humanities, AP government, statistics, environmental studies, and English electives, to name just a few—have shared the responsibility of helping students contextualize this election by creating a deeper understanding of how power operates in our society.” 

The second prong of the approach came from outside the formal classroom.  The CCCE organized two major programs in October designed to help students (and the greater Rivers community) understand the issues and defuse the partisan tensions. Last week, the center brought in Dr. Jamil Zaki to discuss empathy and how to deploy it in respectful disagreement. “He is a nationally known thought leader who brings a big-picture look at how we might be better citizens,” says Enright. The entire school—students and faculty—watched Zaki’s virtual visit and spent time talking about his research and ideas. (You can read more about Zaki’s visit here.) 

The other program that led up to the election took place this past Wednesday during advisory period. Several weeks ago, Enright put out a call to all students, asking them to create short videos that would describe and illuminate aspects of the political process. The undertaking was strictly voluntary, and students could choose whatever topic was of interest. Twenty students created a total of 13 videos, which were shared via the Canvas learning management system. 

In their advisory groups, students spent time watching the videos of their choosing, followed by a discussion of current events. Enright says the goal was to create a student-led experience: “It was important that we didn’t have only adults speaking to students. We wanted to give the students the ability to define some of the election questions they wanted answered and create content around that.” A sense of agency, she says, can help students—and adults—manage any concerns they might feel around the election. “The students got to ask the questions, which can have an empowering effect. Whenever you feel you have an action step, it helps calm the anxiety.” 

Student videos covered a range of topics nearly as wide as the election itself. Layish’s subject was the electoral college—a concept that many adults have trouble understanding. “I learned how much strategy goes into receiving 270 electoral votes,” says Layish. “I definitely gained a deeper understanding, and I definitely learned it’s important to become educated on controversial topics.” 

Cam Dailey ’21 tackled the topic “What is conservatism?” He was motivated, he says, by a desire to clear up widespread misunderstandings about what conservatism means. “I feel like nobody knows what true conservatism is, as it is diluted by the bad news. In reality, conservatism has some very attractive values,” he says. Through doing the project, he learned the importance of doing his own research and not simply accepting received wisdom. “I would recommend that people study different ideologies before seeing themselves as ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat.’” 

Lexie Ravech ’21 similarly found that her subject,—“What is progressivism?”—cleared up some of her own confusion and, she hopes, that of others as well. “We focused on the difference between progressivism and liberalism, which are often grouped together.”

Although he’s only in tenth grade, Aaron Weiner ’23 has been engaged with the political process for years, serving as a volunteer for several races since 2016. He’s long been fascinated by election predictions, the subject of his video. “I had the 2018 senate race exactly right,” he says. “So I have a good track record.” 

Predictions aren’t just about picking winners and losers, he points out. “They can have a twofold impact: They can affect voter turnout, and they can cause candidates to shift their positions to become more electable.” 

Viewing the videos led to lively conversation in advisory. Faculty member Dan Shaud said later, “My advisees seemed especially engaged by the format—maybe because they could freely choose the topics they were interested in and the videos had been made by their classmates—and were eager to share with each other what they had seen and learned.” 

Young as they are, students understand the value of political engagement. “I think it’s definitely important for my generation to be involved,” says Layish. “Learning about what you stand for and your values is important, regardless of whether you can vote.”