Thirteen is an age of change, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a tumultuous election year, it can also be a time of frustration due to being too young to vote — at least according to eighth-grade students at Forsythe Middle School in Ann Arbor and their teachers.
Zahra Seyam, who teaches eighth-grade U.S. history at Forsythe, fielded questions about the election from her students, many of whom she said are passionate about topics such as gun control and climate change.
“Ann Arbor kids are really great because they’re super involved and super interested,” Seyam said. “They always want the voting age to be lower … A lot of them have said things like, ‘Well this is going to affect us, so why can’t we be a part of that?’”
Jeff DeMoss, a social studies teacher and student council adviser at Huron High School, noted that Ann Arbor Public Schools has been trying to ease students’ concerns during such an important and difficult year. Social studies teachers played a key role in those efforts during the 2020 election cycle, DeMoss said.
“This year, part of what we’ve been trying to focus in on at Ann Arbor schools as a whole is trying to understand the very complex and varied sources of our students’ anxiety,” DeMoss said. “The election was an addition to that … Teachers have a responsibility to help students understand the facts and understand the reality, and for me as a historian, especially, to understand what’s happened beforehand.”
In the weeks before the election, Seyam led many activities with her eighth-graders centered around political parties, including a gallery walk in which the students analyzed political ads to understand the themes in the ads and their target audience. Seyam spoke to her students about satire and how political campaigns are persuasive, encouraging them to analyze Trump, Biden and other candidates’ political ads.
The students also conducted a research project on the candidates’ platforms and took a stand on what issues mattered most to them.
“There’s this stereotype that young people are just not engaged, disinterested, will only vote with their parents in mind, but a lot of students have definite projects that are of interest,” Seyam said. “There are a lot of students — (which) I was very surprised about — who are very (against the two-party system). They think that’s really limiting. It’s just really fantastic.”
In accordance with a recent AAPS Equity Plan, which promotes culturally relevant pedagogy to ensure equity across the school system, Sayem also discussed voting rights and the history of voter suppression with her students. Some teachers at Slauson Middle School also hosted a mock election, with Joe Biden winning among students.
Following the violence instigated by pro-Trump extremists at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Seyam said it was important to discuss the events in a space where everyone’s thoughts could be heard.
“There was some class time taken to discuss (the insurrection),” Seyam said. “It’s interesting too because Ann Arbor’s known as a very liberal town, but … there are some who are conservative, who didn’t vote for Biden or Green Party or something, so we wanted to have that space where everyone can talk and digest and react to it.”
DeMoss started class the day after the attempted insurrection by presenting Trump’s comments leading up to the day’s events and showing his students images and videos of the rioters. He stressed the importance of relaying the facts and making his classroom an open forum for questions.
“I canceled what I was doing the next day (and) took an entire day to try to help students understand what was going on,” DeMoss said. “I think it’s extraordinarily important for teachers to provide opportunities for people to share their thoughts, to express anxieties they may be having, to express support for something like that if they wanted to. My class is really an open forum for people to be able to do that, and students had a lot more questions than they had comments.”
Education senior Sophia Little, who is majoring in elementary education with a focus on social studies, echoed the necessity of safe classroom environments in an email to The Daily. Little said it is important that students build a sense of trust in the classroom.
“Before even attempting to have conversations about political topics, it is important that you build a strong classroom community,” Little wrote. “The students need to trust you … By building trust and strong relationships with students, we can have valuable conversations about social justice and political topics.”
Little said she thinks it is never too early to start discussing social justice topics with students. One of her favorite classes at the University is EDUC 392: Foundations of Education & Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, which discusses the relevance of cultural responsibility in modern teaching methods.
“They teach us that kids are never too young to be having conversations about human rights/political events, and it is crucial that we implement social justice into our classrooms right from the start of the year,” Little wrote. “That being said, the way you introduce or discuss topics really depends on the age you are teaching.”
Since Huron High School is an International Baccalaureate school, DeMoss said teachers must take additional steps to address some of the IB curriculum’s values like international-mindedness and embracing diverse viewpoints.
“When there are movements in America that are attempting to spread hatred and disinformation, not stopping to talk about what’s wrong and to lay out the facts is poor teaching and cowardly,” DeMoss said. “It’s difficult, but it’s important to address these topics … You have to tow a very fine line between standing up for basic principles that our country should embrace, or that I personally embrace, and making sure that you’re certainly not stomping on the points of view of any students who want to share their thoughts.”
DeMoss said even though he works all year to make the classroom safe for his students, he’s noticed a hesitation among students in discussing politics out of fear they might say the wrong thing.
“It’s fascinating to me how much harder it is for them to talk about modern political topics compared to ones in the past,” DeMoss said. “They’re all nervous that their classmate is going to jump on them or they’re going to say the wrong thing, or they don’t fully understand the topic, so it’s important that we keep having these conversations, but it’s tough for sure.”
Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Van Horne can be reached at email@example.com.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.