Ithaca Teachers Encourage Political Engagement in the Classroom

By Steven Brasley and Kristy Zhen

Some Ithaca elementary school teachers are taking time to teach the elections this year to inspire political engagement among their students, despite pressed time to teach basic reading and math skills.

Mihal Ronen-Clay reads to her second-grade class at Fall Creek Elementary School.

Amidst increased pressure to stick to lessons for standardized tests, teachers from Enfield Elementary School and South Hill Elementary School say it is vital for young Americans to understand the democratic process.

“In order for democracy to survive, you have to educate the citizenry,” said Judith Blood, a fourth-grade teacher at Enfield Elementary School.

Teaching a unit on government and politics helps to inspire students to one day participate in the electoral process, Blood said. This message is important at Enfield, one of Ithaca’s poorest schools, she added.

Martha Levine, a fifth-grade teacher at South Hill Elementary School, agreed that taking the time to teach politics to young students helps encourage them to participate in the elections once they reach voting age.

While Levine and Blood fit a whole unit on elections into their curricula, third-grade teacher Eric Reiff finds it difficult to do this when about one-third of his students do not have grade-level reading skills. “I see kids falling behind in the basics,” he said.
That’s why he has to spend more and more time each year focusing on the fundamentals at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School.

However, Reiff still attempts to teach his students about the elections by bringing it up during morning meetings because he wants his students to stay informed.

Blood said that the elementary school curriculum is inundated with lessons preparing the students for the standardized tests.

“Sometimes it becomes a bit of a triage. When teacher evaluations are based on test scores, you can’t spend much time focusing on lessons [of politics],” she said.

However, these teachers have found ways to incorporate basic skills with the election process. Fall Creek teacher Mihal Ronen-Clay has her second graders use math to figure out how many years it will be until they are able to vote. Blood incorporates lessons on the Electoral College’s vote-counting process into her class’s math time.

Matt Smith, a spokesman for the New York State Union of Teachers, says teaching civic engagement to elementary school students is just as important as preparing them for standardized tests.

“There is a place for testing, but it’s one component in a student’s education,” he said.

Ronen-Clay has taught about the elections for the 21 years she has been an educator. She uses it to teach about community membership, leadership and respect for the opinions of others.

Michael Nardi, a teacher at Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, has similar sentiments when teaching a class called ‘Presidents’ to his middle school students. It focuses entirely on the current presidency and the upcoming election.

“My idea is to get students interested in following politics, see why it’s important, what’s at stake and particularly parsing media,” Nardi said.

Reiff and Ronen-Clay have hopes that their students take what they learn in the classroom and talk to their parents about it.

“Most importantly, go and talk to the people at home who care for you and ask questions. That’s where it can expand an interest and who knows, spark a career,” Reiff said.

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