Last weekend, I spent some time with the ONE Campaign doing their yearly ONE Summit in Washington, D.C. Part of the reason I was asked to attend this was because I had taken a trip with them to Ethiopia back in October of 2012 and, as a delegation member, I got to learn more about the work they do and what that looked like on an international level. Among other things, I was struck by the idea that ONE doesn’t ever ask people for money in order to support them. Instead, they ask for your voice. The reason for the ONE Summit was because there’s a new bill being introduced in the coming weeks that we wanted to endorse and get endorsements from Senators and Representatives. Not only did they arm us with information about the bill, but we got organized in order to speak with the representatives from our own home states. As a person living in the state Capitol, I found it hilarious that I traveled across the country to meet with people who have offices three blocks from where I work. But, whatever it takes, right?
ONE is an organization that fights two things: preventable diseases (like AIDS and tuberculosis) and extreme poverty. For this mission, we worked to get the bill that would encourage Electrify Africa. 7 out of 10 Africans have access to electricity, and one of the biggest killers of sub-Saharan Africans stems from their use of kerosene lamps. When I was little, we had several of those lamps that we used when the power went out, and our eyes burned and lungs hurt from just a few hours of use. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like if we used them as our sole source of light.
Upon returning to work, some students of mine asked me where I had been so I told them about my trip. As a natural progression from this, one of my history teachers invited me to speak to his class of 7th grade students who recently took the Constitution Test. In Illinois, students must take this test in both middle and high schools. Of course, the students at my school wanted to know why it was important for me to go on a trip like this. Besides discussing the importance of voting, I spoke to how crucial it was to lobby our elected officials when something is important to you.
In teaching and debating government with these students, I found that they asked a lot of complex questions that led us to discussions I didn’t expect. We debated the Bill of Rights and why the Constitution didn’t originally include them. They wanted to know about having laws against alcohol, because they’ve never grown up in a world where this was illegal. They are, however, growing up in a world where marijuana was illegal and now isn’t in places like Colorado. (That was a lively discussion!)
It made me realize that it’s easy to talk government with kids if you make it relatable to their world. For instance, when they recently studied Plessy v. Ferguson they were incredulous about the fact that separate but equal really never was equal. Middle schoolers are wise enough to question equality and fairness and discerning enough to know that, in 1896, our nation still wasn’t getting it right. After class, the teacher and I discussed the ways in which we can use resources for talking government to children. We also agreed on three ways to do that:
1. Ask them about the importance of fairness.
Kids are notorious for desiring equality. If someone gets more than them on their plate, they’ll complain. If you forget to credit their essays and you remembered to give points to another student, they’ll call you out. This is a great place to start when you begin talking about government and fairness and why we have some laws.
2. Put it into context of their lives.
None of my students vote yet, but they understand when things aren’t right. Asking them things like: How does this affect you personally? How does it affect your family? are two great conversation starters.
3. Watch government in action.
Watching the nightly news, especially local news, doesn’t really show how the government works. C-Span is a great tool if you can catch some live-streaming events for issues that you’ve been monitoring, but taking kids to the voting polls with you and canvassing neighborhoods for your politician of choice are easy ways to involve children and get them talking about the process of voting.
Every conversation starter can lead to a variety of levels of discussion depending on where your children are with their knowledge of the government. Since it’s a topic we teach each year in school, especially around federal and state holidays, there are ample opportunities to get kids talking about politics in non-threatening ways.
Resources for parents and teachers:
American Fact Finders – find popular facts and data about your own community.
How Do I Become President Poster – help children understand the process of becoming President.
Rights of Citizens: The Bill of Rights – Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government for kids.