Local High School Students Give a Civics Lesson

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by Charlene Weigel –

No one likes to fail a test, especially as the school year comes to a close. On June 5, that sad news was delivered to a roomful of learners. The test? Distinguish fake from real news. The teachers? Juniors and seniors from Hackley School and Sleepy Hollow High School. The students with significant room for improvement? Forty adults who participated in a community civics discussion sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westchester.

“Our goal is to get more people educated about how to harness their political energy with the right means,” said Daniel Livingston, a senior at Sleepy Hollow High School. Livingston and other members of the School’s Rho Kappa National Social Studies Honor Society partnered with students from Hackley School’s Progressive Action League on a program on state and local government. Working with their teachers, League members and other volunteers, the students researched and designed an interactive community workshop entitled Let’s Get Ready for the Midterms!

The students wanted to tackle a problem: voter turnout is much lower in federal midterm elections than in a presidential election year. “And yet,” observed Livingston, “issues that affect voters’ lives are decided by the winners of both types of elections.” The interactive “Civics 101” seminar was quite different from the lessons adults remembered from their own school days. The workshop, a mix of student-led presentations and group discussions, transformed dusty topics such as federalism and separation of power into compelling and contemporary concepts. What role should the federal government have in health care? Should school budgets be subject to local tax funding? Breakout groups allowed students and adults to apply basic civic concepts to tangible topics that touch lives every day.

After a roundup of the specific candidates running for office at the state, county, town, village and school board levels, and the confusing array of primary and final election dates, participants reflected on problems that prevent people from voting. Discussion groups explored the trade-off between the value of multiple touch-points for voter engagement, and the fatigue and confusion that can result in disaffected voters.

The teen teachers then educated the adults about navigating today’s media. “Traditional print media can cover only so much ground,” said Max Rosenblum, Hackley School sophomore. Rosenblum and fellow sophomore Jordan Miller discussed the paradox of the explosion in the number of media outlets at the same time that many Americans are narrowing their consumption to a single source that fits their political bias. They stressed the importance of seeking out media from different points of view to be an informed citizen.

Amy Chalan, Hackley School junior, added, “The internet has enabled anyone to publish without adhering to codes of journalistic conduct.” Chalan and Matt Fisch, Hackley junior, schooled the participants in a number of tools and technology tips to distinguish credible from fake news sources, a crib sheet designed to raise the group GPA on any future pop quiz.

The students’ tech-literacy was also a critical success factor that allowed ten teens from two different schools who had never met to design a community workshop in just over one month. They collaborated using Google slides and group chats to supplement face-to-face meetings. Chalan translated the slide deck into Spanish to be able to welcome all participants. “We would like people to know that although we’re young and busy,” said Chalan, “we are trying to make the community more unified and give everyone a political voice.”

What’s next for these engaged students? Per Sleepy Hollow High School senior James Buzaid, “We’re going to take this show on the road.”

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