The Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital’s (JPDS-NC) Election Project 2016: Kid’s Voices Count

By: Ms. Mindy Hirsch, Ms. Melissa Rickabaugh, Ms. Devora Yeganeh, Ms. Kelly McAllister, Ms. Vanessa Prell, Ms. Hanina Goldstein
from Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation's Capital

Categories:
Interdisciplinary Integration,
Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, History, Literature/ English, Tanach, Current Events, Social Studies, Jewish Text

Pedagogy:
PBL - project based learning, Constructivist, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
Pre-K-6

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

The Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital’s (JPDS-NC) Election Project 2016: Kid’s Voices Count was an interdisciplinary, school-wide project that required the participation of every student and teacher at JPDS-NC. Students from Pre-Kindergarten through Sixth Grade delved into a variety of election issues, met with experts to deepen their understanding, met with and listened to other students in area schools to broaden their perspectives, and reflected on Jewish teachings that relate to the issues in the election. Each grade focused on a different election-related issue connected to their core curriculum, culminating in a Voter’s Guide distributed throughout our community and beyond.

Entry Text

JPDS-NC Election Project 2016: Kids’ Voices Count

Organization

This description of the “JPDS-NC Election Project 2016: Kids’ Voices Count” is organized into the following sections:

  • Goals
  • Inception and Planning – Implementation: grade-by-grade summaries of the process at each grade level (see more detailed descriptions accompanied by student reflections and teacher reflections on what worked and what they would do differently in Full Grade-by-Grade Implementation folder)
  • The Voter’s Guide
  • Lessons Learned
  • Assessing the Impact

In addition to this document, we have included the following folders of documentation that can be accessed at https://sites.google.com/a/students.jpds.org/jpds-nc-kohelet-prize-submission/:

Goals

At the center of the educational philosophy of JPDS-NC is a strong belief in the capabilities of children and their capacity to play an active role as learners and as citizens. We believe that children are current as well as future citizens and, as such, should be informed and have a voice as social and political actors in the public sphere. In order to do that, students need to learn how to express fact-based opinions and how to make choices, being aware of the consequences. It is our role as educators to create the conditions for the students to feel confident that they are being heard, and for them to learn and practice handling conflict in the context of civil discourse. The JPDS-NC Mission Statement speaks about our students becoming “knowledgeable, responsible Jews and citizens”; therefore, having a Jewish perspective as citizens is integral to our goals as a school. Based on these beliefs, this fall, JPDS-NC kicked off a school-wide Election Project 2016: Kids’ Voices Count. Students from Pre-Kindergarten through Sixth Grade delved into a variety of election issues, met with experts to deepen their understanding, met with and listened to other students in area schools to broaden their perspectives, and reflected on Jewish teachings that relate to the issues in the election. Each grade focused on a different election-related issue connected to their core curriculum. Topics studied included immigration, globalization, public lands, D.C. Statehood, political messaging, and more.

Through this project, students developed critical thinking, analysis, interviewing, communication, and advocacy skills and learned important concepts on civics and their specific area of research. They also learned about the contemporary relevance of Jewish text in their lives by grappling with texts that illuminate the connection of our timeless tradition to the issues of the day. The Voter’s Guide is a product created by the students: their voices, their writing, their ideas, and their values. We are proud of what they produced and what they learned in the process.

At JPDS-NC, we prepare our students to be informed, empowered, and engaged citizens. As a Jewish community day school in the nation’s capital, we feel an even stronger obligation to model for our students the importance of civil discourse and civic engagement. The Election Project has been an extraordinary opportunity for our entire school community to engage in civic life in a meaningful, inclusive, and respectful way. We are inspired by the talent and creativity of our educators in teaching about the election, by the curiosity, awareness, and insights of the students, and by the dedication of the many community members who volunteered on this project.

Inception and Planning

Like many schools, JPDS-NC has developed a school-wide project centered on the presidential election every four years. In 2012, the project was led by the Sixth Graders, who created platforms and candidates based on broad, basic principles of the Democratic and Republican parties. They campaigned for their fictional candidates in each of the other grades, and they held a debate. We believe the results of the mock election that followed were much closer than they would have been had we identified the parties and the real candidates, because the discussion throughout the school was based on issues, not real candidates.

Since then, we have been evolving as a school away from simulations alone and toward authentic engagement with real-world problems and issues, whether they be relevant to an individual classroom or to the world at large. We have developed a pedagogy that speaks to who we are and where we are – Washington, D.C. As a part of this process, we have worked closely with a group called DC-PZ, which brings the work being done through Project Zero at the Harvard University School of Education to schools and educators throughout the Washington Metro area.

For the last two summers, a large group of our teachers has attended a summer institute held at the Washington International School that allows for in-depth learning and thinking about Project Zero initiatives. One of these initiatives is called “Children as Citizens.” An article about some of this work is available: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Engaging%20City%20Hall%20-%20Children%20as%20Citizens.pdf

Both summers, the lead researchers in that effort have presented their work, along with an area teacher who has implemented this work in the previous school year. Our General Studies Instructional Leader came back from the institute convinced that we could and should apply this approach to our Election Project this year, that we were ready to step up to the challenge.

As we thought through what this would look like in our school, we moved away from replicating our project from four years ago, partly because we wanted the project to have a real-world application and partly because of the nature of this year’s unprecedented, complex, contentious, and sometimes inappropriate for young children campaign. We felt it was more important than ever to help our students understand some of the issues being debated by adults, develop respect for differences over those issues, and cultivate civil forms of discourse in the face of disagreement. As a guide for ourselves, our students, and our families, we used a contract on civility developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/TT_Speak_Up_for_Civility_Contract_0.pdf .

As we made our plans, we focused on the key idea of the right of children to have a voice in the public sphere and to be listened to by adults. We decided that a way to effectuate that would be for the students to create a Voter’s Guide for adults. We brainstormed ways in which to get from where we were starting, with little other than our existing curricula, to our end point, this still abstract idea of a Voter’s Guide. We thought about inviting parent and community experts to come in and share both their expertise and why they think the work they do matters; having our students interview other children so that their understandings could be informed by children in other circumstances; and having our Sixth Graders summarize the two major parties’ positions on each issue so that the students could learn about the different viewpoints adults were debating.

We first presented the plan to the faculty at large – with an end product in mind but not a roadmap for getting there – during our Teacher Work Week before school opened. It was greeted with both enthusiasm and trepidation, and there were many moments in the two months that followed when we felt confused and unsure of our ability to provide the support our students needed due to the complexities of the issues involved, complexities adults struggle with as well. Additionally, the contours of the project shifted more than once, causing initial anxiety when new planning was needed. But throughout, we threw ourselves into this work with dedication, creativity, and open hearts and minds, inspiring and empowering our students – and being inspired and empowered by them in return.

We developed a proposal and worked with different groups within the school. The thought-leaders in the school (such as division directors and instructional leaders) gathered to learn from those involved in the inception of the project and about the work the teachers had done up to that point in order to provide support as needed. General Studies teachers and Judaic Studies teachers worked together, and we met regularly to share progress and problems in our classrooms and serve as inspiration to each other. (See “Proposal: Election Project 2016,” “Notes on Election Project 9-12-16,” and “Further notes on Election Project 9-12-16” in Planning Documents Folder.)

An important component for us was always the question of whether or not we would successfully help our students develop agency and a belief in their right to be heard. Key to this was ensuring that they believed that we genuinely held those beliefs and that this was not simply a task we were asking them to complete for us – but, rather, a consequential effort to benefit themselves and their country. Key to helping them think in those terms was asking them, grade by grade, at the beginning of the project, whether they thought adults should listen to kids. The answers, without being simple, were overwhelming in the yes column, but they reflected the different developmental stages our students are at, from the doubts of four-year-olds, who depend so much on adults, to the sense of not being given enough credit felt by our 12-year-olds. (See “Should Adults Listen to Children?” in Planning Documents Folder.)

One of the biggest shifts that occurred during the course of the project was our thinking about the Voter’s Guide. We knew that we wanted it to be values-based and that we didn’t want it to be like the guides states and organizations provide, for example, listing and describing candidates and proposed laws or presenting just lists of the pros and cons of issues. In addition, we wanted our students to come away from this project with an appreciation for our democratic process, which should foster respect for and understanding of a range of positions. The approach we ended up taking was to have our students first learn about the issues and the pros and cons, or costs and benefits, then identify the values related to those issues that mattered most to them, and finally turn those values into questions for voters to think about before casting their ballots (although our youngest students took a simplified approach, as developmentally appropriate). We wanted them to move away from knee-jerk positions and toward considered reflection. When the Judaic Studies teachers presented Jewish texts for application to the issues and for discussion, they focused on passages that invite thought, not prescription.

A further piece of our planning, dictated by our busy calendar, was to integrate our annual Veterans Day program and the Election Project. Because the performance was falling in the week of the 2016 Election and our parent-teacher conferences, and it was also falling after the school weeks shortened by the Jewish holidays and filled with the the intense work of this project, we saw an opportunity to combine honoring our veterans with honoring the civic values our veterans have served to defend, those civic values that were emerging for our students through their work on the project. As a result, our Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Grades chose to present work they did during the election project, making for a particularly moving and meaningful performance.

During the course of the project, twice we were interviewed by a journalist from Washington Jewish Week, first for an article about teaching about Trump (http://washingtonjewishweek.com/34091/how-to-teach-trump/featured-slider-post/ ), and then again for an article specifically about the project (http://washingtonjewishweek.com/34409/students-study-issues-as-election-approaches/news/ ).

However it is the learning and growth that took place in all of our classrooms, planned for and guided by our faculty as described below, that speaks for this project most eloquently.

Implementation

Below you will find a summary of the implementation plans for each grade level. Please click on the Full Grade-by-Grade Implementation folder to read a fuller implementation description for each grade level.

Pre-Kindergarten – The Needs of the Child

In Pre-K, students spend the year learning to understand and establish their own identities. In order to engage our youngest students in the JPDS-NC Election Project, we began by posing the question to our four-year-olds: “Should adults listen to what you have to say?” The children grappled with the idea; some believed that adults are more knowledgeable and have more experience than children, while others believed that it was only fair that children are listened to as adults are. Students were then asked whether or not it is important for adults to know what children need. The children were united in their response, noting that it is important for adults to know the needs of children. When asked why, the children mentioned that knowing what they need helps adults help them, get them things, make sure they are safe, and make sure they are happy. Among other things, they recognized the importance of having a purpose; as one student said, “Children need to make things to feel proud …” As a part of the grades’ overarching, year-long study of Identity, the class discussed that having our needs met, or not, can help us uncover different aspects of our identity and even challenge our perceived identity. We identified a key piece of Jewish text as meaningful and relevant to the students’ exploration of identity: “And God created the human being in the Divine image, in the image of God, Hashem created him/her” Genesis 1:27.

Kindergarten – Leadership

In Kindergarten, students explored what it means to be part of a community. The Kindergarten theme of Community inspired us, at the beginning of the year, to ask all three classes, “What does it mean to be a member of the three classrooms – Gan Rimonim, Gan Tmarim, or Gan Anavim?” The purpose of asking this question was to begin defining and establishing the individual classroom communities. In each class, the children continued to represent their learning and discovery of their classroom community through the creation of sculptures, mosaics, and symbols. They then focused on taking a deep dive into researching one of three values 1. Tmarim-Hachnasat Orchim (Welcoming the Stranger) 2. Rimonim-Derech Eretz (Thoughtful Conduct) 3. Anavim-Tikkun Olam (Transforming the World) in order to understand their importance, learn how to live the value, and then use the value to become change-makers in their various communities. While taking this deep dive, the students zoomed in on how these three values connect to their image of leadership, allowing them to define what qualities they want to see in the leaders and change-makers of their community. As one student advised, “Help people to do things that are hard to for them,” while another advised “Don’t show off your power.”

First Grade – Stewardship

First Grade students studied stewardship of the Earth. First, we discussed the difference between “natural” and “man-made.” We went to Rock Creek Park and observed natural and man-made objects. Upon returning to the classroom, we discussed how man-made objects in parks could be made to enhance instead of compete with nature, such as the bathrooms, picnic tables, and a beautiful stone bridge the students observed there. In class, students read about and discussed stewardship of the Earth and how to take care of and protect our planet. In Judaic Studies, connections were made through the regular “Figures in the Tanach” curriculum, specifically, Bryiat HaOlam. Students learned that they have a voice, despite not being old enough to vote. Using sentence starters, each child wrote a letter to the voters of the world describing why it is important to be a good steward of the Earth, as well as what they should consider when voting in the United States election this November. First Graders also created their own laws to help guide future leaders, with students giving candidate speeches in front of their class to present their new laws. At the conclusion of the project, students felt that they had a voice as young citizens and that their contributions were important. As one said, “My parents had already [decided who to vote for], but they can know how to be stewards of the Earth [from my letter]. Being good stewards of the Earth is helping the world, and that’s a good thing.” They felt empowered to be good stewards of the Earth as well as to teach others to demonstrate good stewardship.

Second Grade – Having a Voice and D.C. Statehood

Second Grade investigated the issue of D.C. Statehood. In order to begin understanding why the citizens of Washington, D.C., would want statehood, students first had to grapple with why people vote and what an issue is. Students learned about who votes and how issues influence voting. They explored the concepts of issues by thinking and talking about ideas that are important to them. This inquiry led to discussions about voice and having a voice in the school and the classroom, ideas that were also incorporated into Art and Music. Students used a Jewish lens to think about having a voice by reading and debating the story of the Daughters of Tzelophchad. Students made connections between the Daughters advocating for themselves and addressing issues important to one’s life. Second Graders then exercised their voices by meeting with students at Horace Mann Elementary and interviewed them to learn about their important issues. Lastly, each of the classes in the Second Grade decided to continue exercising their voices by learning more about and advocating for a school issue that is important to them. As one student noted, “If you want to change something you don’t think is right, then you need to talk about it. You need to speak up.” Overall, this project supported the development of students’ voices and advocacy skills, helped them understand that people have different values, and engaged them in the U.S. election.

Third Grade – Public Lands

With the 50 State project at the center of the Third Grade curriculum, Third Grade students examined the use and protection of public lands. We first had to define what public land are. Students shared their ideas on the answer to this question, after which we researched together on the Internet. Once students knew what public lands were, we began our first “Chalk Talk,” where students first voiced their ideas on who protects public lands and how public lands are used. Throughout this unit, Third Grade students were also studying the landforms and national parks of their individual states. We examined how the water sources, trees, and animals interact with and affect each other. From reading two “Newsela” articles, we learned about the environmental and financial pressures that have been placed on the lands. An expert JPDS-NC parent spoke to the Third Grade class about the different types of public lands and the demands on their usage. From this discussion, students respectfully discussed the benefits and the costs of using public lands for our daily consumption. Using the knowledge they had gained, Third Grade travelled to Center City Public Charter School, presented visual images of national parks and monuments, and described what public lands are to the Fourth and Fifth Grade classes there. Together, the JPDS-NC students and the Center City students completed a second “Chalk Talk,” sharing and discussing their ideas related to the usage and protection of public lands. Together, all the students began to sort and categorize, which the JPDS-NC Third Graders later finished categorizing and evaluating. When presented with a verse from Parshat Lech Lecha in Genesis, students analyzed what the Torah had to say about public lands. They learned that public lands have been on earth since the beginning of its creation, and in order to explore and protect them, we need to consider who or what currently lives there, how we are going to positively or negatively impact it, and the implications on future generations. As one student thoughtfully stated, “Me and my family have fun and take care of the land because we are part of a community.” Throughout this unit, students came together as a community as they respectfully partook in many class discussions and were challenged with thought-provoking questions from their peers on our obligation, or lack thereof, to public lands within the United States.

Fourth Grade – Globalization

For this project, the Fourth Graders took on one of the most challenging issues of our day: globalization. They explored this topic because of their year-long study of world geography and culture. In order to help make this vast and complex topic easier to think about, their teachers divided it up into three sub-topics, one for each homeroom: importing, exporting, and international organizations and collaboration. Each homeroom delved deeply into its assigned issue and considered in particular the costs and benefits of each interaction by considering its impact on the people living in the United States, on people living outside the United States, and on the environment. The students learned about these issues by reading and talking about relevant news articles, watching videos, collecting, organizing, and analyzing data, and listening to and questioning guest speakers. Students discovered that some of the items integral to their lives such as clothing and smartphones connect them to people around the globe. As one student noted, “It’s fun to learn about globalization, to know how ordinary things can be related to so many other things around the world.” Part of their process of weighing the costs and benefits of globalization was to present their findings to Fourth Graders at other schools and to discuss with them the merits of continuing our current practices. In the end, each Fourth Grader at JPDS-NC individually arrived at and defended his/her own position on this question. At the same time, in Judaic Studies, the students addressed the issue of our responsibility for other people, even those we don’t know, in the story of Sodom in which Avraham tries to save those cities from God’s destruction by bargaining with God on behalf of their inhabitants, strangers to him. Students considered what they could learn from Avraham about watching out and taking care of others and made the connection between this question and the ones they were considering about modern day globalization. Just as they had grappled with big issues themselves, they urged the adult voters to consider questions such as “What is our responsibility to help people around the world?” “Is it a good choice for the U.S.A. to send away money when we still need it at home?” and “What can we do to reduce the costs of our interactions with the rest of the world?”

Fifth Grade – Immigration

The Fifth Grade team launched our project on immigration with two guiding questions that challenged the students’ understanding of what it means to be an American: “What does an immigrant look like?” and “What does an American look like?” In General Studies, Fifth Grade students pursued research topics of interest in different categories related to immigration: humanity, security, policies and protocols, the economy, and other people’s views. Concurrently students studied emigration and immigration of Jews through Jewish history in Judaic Studies. Two parents practicing immigration law presented to the Fifth Grade and students examined visual depictions of immigration in Art class. To apply their learning, small groups of Fifth Graders created model monuments for future American immigrants in the Design Lab. They also wrote paragraphs summarizing their research findings and their own opinions on the topics they studied. Through the Voter’s Guide and Veterans Day Performance, students shared their process, knowledge, opinions, and important questions to consider with the broader community. The Veterans Day presentation also included a speech from each group explaining the symbolism and meaning behind their immigration monument. Finally, Fifth Graders reflected on how the project pushed them to use what they already knew in a new way. As one student reflected, “It pushed me to learn things outside of my mom.”

Sixth Grade – Visions for the Future

Our goals for the Sixth Grade Election Project included building empathy and critical thinking, examining and articulating the values that informed political positions, building connections between students across grade levels, and developing an understanding of nuance, timing, and symbolism in political messaging. Sixth Grade students began by identifying particular issues to examine closely: immigration, healthcare, foreign policy, D.C. Statehood, public lands, the economy, equality and civil rights, and education. In partners, students read party platforms on their issue and created a PowerPoint or iMovie to share the party platforms and articulate their own positions and views. Next, Sixth Graders presented to other grades in the school and visited a public charter school to survey Eighth Grade students and share their learning. During this process, Sixth Graders also had the opportunity to hear from two parent experts on political messaging and participate in a workshop at the Newseum on the role of images in political messaging. At the end of the project, the students created and displayed posters analyzing political cartoons from 2016. In Judaic Studies, students connected their thinking about values with passages and prayers from Judaic texts. They also made cross-curricular connections in Language Arts by examining how being informed is essential to citizenship through the lens of the dystopian novel The Giver. To culminate the project, students expressed their hopes and dreams for the country by writing value statements that they shared in the Voter’s Guide and at the Veterans Day Performance. The students’ reflections and actions during and after Election Day demonstrated their ability to articulate and put into practice, with respect and empathy, the values they explored throughout the project. As one student summed up the impact, “JPDS’s Election Project has helped me expand my knowledge and understanding of what’s really going on in the world, and because of that, I can confidently say that I walk away from the politics unit as a better citizen of America.”

Lessons Learned

We reflected at all grade levels about what worked and what we would do differently. (These grade-specific reflections can be found in the Full Grade-by-Grade Implementation folder.) Certain themes emerged from the reflections and conversations throughout the project.

Outstanding among all that we achieved with this project was the level to which our whole school, on two campuses, was engaged in a common, community-wide enterprise that met all our children where they were and allowed them to grow. Our students worked with adults, with students in other grades within the school, and with students in other schools. Furthermore, we integrated Jewish learning and Jewish text in a way that made them immediately relevant to our students’ lives. And finally, we accomplished this with limited time and an externally imposed deadline, the presidential election.

Key to this success was the involvement of all the adults in the school, and many in the parent body, driven by the need to involve our students in a major civic event in a way that would promote positive engagement instead of discord and despair. Conversation about the project was a constant in both formal meetings and informal. We debated purpose and means throughout, checking in on progress and challenging and supporting each other. We used our school e-newsletter to keep each other and our community informed and involved.

Another key component that worked was the connection between our regular curriculum and the election-related issue explored at each grade level. While working on the project necessitated making curricular choices about what would remain from what we otherwise would have done in our classrooms and what we would need to set aside this year, the curricular tie-in allowed us introduce and build on important curricular themes and content and to place the work of the project in two frameworks: that of the school year for each grade and that of having a voice in the public sphere and the election. Furthermore, by doing this, we will be able to call on and build on the work done during the project throughout the year, reinforcing the value of the learning, thinking, and action that took place.

We would have liked more time to delve deeper into the issues and learn more about the different sides to each issue and about possible solutions. Taking this a step further, we would have liked opportunities to help our students work toward being a part of those solutions, adding a component of action beyond the Voter’s Guide. As we move forward through the school year, we will be looking for ways we might be able to do that in connection to our curricula.

We struggled with whether or not to connect what was happening in the classrooms to what was happening on the national stage during this election season. Many of our students craved making connections, while some of our families felt we inappropriately strayed into that territory. While we would not expect to avoid these conflicts, having more opportunities to talk through this aspect might have given us, in our individual classrooms, more guidance.

One area where we felt we fell short at most grade levels and would do differently if we were doing this project again was that of hearing other voices. We would want to expose our students to others, both children and adults, who come from different circumstances and experiences to broaden their understanding and deepen their ability to think both critically and empathetically. Furthermore, we wish we had built in more time with the adult experts we met along the way so that our students could have explored more with them the connections between what they were doing at school and what the adults did out in the world. Where our students did have the opportunity to meet and talk with students of different backgrounds, we are hoping that we can foster those new relationships and form partnerships moving forward that mutually support our students and those at the other schools.

We all would have liked to have built in more opportunities for reflection on the part of our students. While this document and the supporting documentation demonstrate that reflection was a vital aspect of the work we and our students did, often we did not stop and make that possible. This was in large part because of the time constraints we were under. However, whether we had stopped for individual reflection on the learning or group reflection on the purpose the learning was serving, we would have liked to have done more of it. We believe it is a core requirement of work like this.

Finally, we all felt the effects of working on a project that was so large, encompassing four-year-olds through twelve-year-olds in twenty different homeroom classrooms and with teachers in General Studies and Judaic Studies collaborating on something we had never done before. Furthermore, while our primary end goal – giving our students a voice in the public sphere – was in place from the beginning, we had to figure out how to get there as we went, what it would look like, and what it would replace – with many academic goals to meet, many competing curricular goals, and many constraints. This can be an uncomfortable place to be. In addition, we sometimes planned for a particular outcome, only to have that outcome changed mid-course, whether it was because we realized time wouldn’t allow for all we planned, student interest took us someplace different, developments in one classroom impacted others at the same grade level, or administrative input and imperatives were clarified, While we would have preferred more clarity from the start, we also recognize that that is not always possible when authentic, real-world learning and growing (for students and teachers alike) is taking place.

The Voter’s Guide

The Voter’s Guide (found in the Voter’s Guide folder) speaks for itself – and for our students. It is important, however, to note the way in which it was created. As it was logistically impossible for all the students in each grade to write their grade’s section together, a teacher in each grade gathered a small group of students from each of the homeroom classes in that grade to complete this piece of the project. Together, this smaller group, in First through Sixth Grades, decided how they wanted to summarize the work they had done. (The teachers wrote the summaries for Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten.) Then they took the work the whole grade had done in determining what were the essential themes and values and turned those into questions for the voters to think about before casting their ballots. Our General Studies Instructional Leader went over all of them and, in most cases, went back to the students with clarifying questions and to have them flesh out their descriptions. In addition, she worked with the students in Third through Sixth Grades to help them turn questions that had yes or no answers into questions that required further thought to answer. When it was pointed out to the group of Third Graders working on this that all their questions could be answered with just a yes or no, they understood right away why that might not lead to careful thought, and they enthusiastically began grappling with turning those questions into ones that required more than a quick answer.

In addition to sending four copies of the Guide home to each school family, we delivered fifty copies to each of the area synagogues our families attend. The Guide was shared digitally with our families and with the larger community of alumni and their families, grandparents, Board members, and other friends of the school. At the urging of the students, we mailed copies to a number of politicians they had identified and a few others the teachers suggested. These included the presidential candidates and their running mates, Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe and Jill Biden, Bill Clinton, the Secretary of the Department of Education, the chairs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, the Mayor of Washington, D.C., the non-voting representative to Congress from Washington, D.C., and our local councilmember. We included an email address on the Guide for feedback.

Distribution of the Guide is one area in which we fell short in many ways. We hoped to have it completed by two weekends before the election but did not have it ready until the Thursday before. Teachers emphasized the Guide and its role to varying degrees in their classrooms. Not all students understood the process by which the words in the Guide representing their grade had been produced. We did not enlist parents or students directly in its distribution. We did not ask whether anyone had connections to the politicians the students wanted to reach out to, to better ensure that they would see it. And while we sent it to some journalists, again, we did not use the connections in the community to do so more effectively. As of this writing, only one of those people outside of our community has responded, Donna Brazile, Interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee, who sent a handwritten note saying: “I was thrilled to receive a copy of your Kids’ Voices Count voter guide! Kids’ voices do indeed count and it is fantastic that you are communicating that message so clearly and at such a ripe age to be reminded of the power of tikkun olam. Keep up the great work!”

We heard from many parents in passing – at school, during our parent-teacher conferences, and especially at our Veterans Day performance, where they saw the learning in action. Some recipients also responded via the special email address, and a sampling follows.

From parents:

  • “To those who conceptualized, developed and executed this incredible project, my hat is off to you. This is an incredibly powerful model for how schools should cultivate civic-minded, empathetic and intellectually curious learners. The themes you have chosen to investigate including immigration, environmental health and the importance of public lands, critique of globalization, the meaning and importance of community, healthcare, education, fair economy and civil rights comprise a grand model for a greater society. Indeed, these are the issues we should all be focused on. As evidenced by this horrific election cycle, older generations must heed the messages that this guide, written by our children, are sending us. Too often, we infantilize our children by marginalizing their observations, feelings, creations and solutions. This guide shows us that we should listen to them much more often, and it is evidence for why we should continue to provide them with opportunities to express their views of the world. Thank you for not infantilizing our kids and for giving them agency as political actors and global citizens. Very proud of all of your work.”
  • “I just want to say, again, thank you for such a beautiful [Veterans Day] performance last night. It was inspiring, especially this week, to hear such amazing statements of democracy from the students. JPDS is an amazing school that is truly creating citizens we can be proud of. Thank you and all the teachers for giving all of us hope for the future.”

From the JPDS-NC Board of Directors:

  • On behalf of the Board of Directors, I want to thank you for your tremendous work on the Voter’s Guide project. Reading the kids’ words — and listening to them speak, sing, and pray last night — I was struck, again, by how successful you are at helping them become knowledgeable, responsible Jews and citizens. It’s one thing to write it in our mission statement; it’s another to watch it take place, in living color, on stage and in our living rooms! You are truly delivering on the Board’s longstanding vision for the school. Kol hakavod for the work, sensitivity, and talent that you poured into this project. We are deeply grateful.”

From grandparents:

  • “We were extremely impressed with the hard work you put into this project. It was a great example of integration, both within the school and in the greater community. A great deal of critical thinking skills were used. As a former teacher, I was very pleased to see this kind of project and have share the results with several area educators and rabbis.”

From friends of the school:

  • “I trust that this note finds you and family (JPDS’s and your personal one) well. I absolutely had to write to tell you that the JPDS Voters Guide just blew me away. I do hope that somehow, in some way, it is (or can be) released to the public, because it is AWESOME!! and every person who ever thinks of running for public office should have the opportunity to learn from this next generation and the process and product that came from their efforts! A hearty kol hakovod to all involved!!”

From rabbis and educators:

  • “This is incredibly beautiful for the way in which it connects curriculum, public policy, timely issues and appropriate, non-partisan explanations for children. May I have permission to share it with my middle and upper school colleagues and with our head of school, Sharon Levin. Our head of school continues to teach AP Government and she has been at our school as a teacher and more recently as school head for nearly 40 years now and she is truly hooked on politics and she would love this!”
  • “I have recently received a copy of “Kids” Voices Count – JPDS – NC Voter’s Guide” from my daughter-in-law . . . , a third grade teacher at JPDS. The planning and organization, as well as the creativity and thoughtfulness that went into this project are very impressive. The students were given the opportunity to not only learn but put into practice a wide variety of skills including research and analysis and critical listening and communication with adults and other children. In today’s world where there is often a lack of interest in issues, community involvement, and the importance of being a good citizen, the Guide made me hopeful that schools are on the right track toward promoting the value of citizenship, democracy, diversity, and the importance of voting.”

We also received one negative response (from a parent):

“I disagree strongly. You devalue Judaism by connecting it to what are ultimately trivial and passing political concerns (e.g., citing the book of Shmuel beside DC statehood) and make is seem unserious. Please keep politics out of the classroom. Judaism is about meaning, not today’s trendy cause.”

We hope this Guide and the project itself will reverberate beyond this one election as a model for supporting civic engagement and civil discourse and as a means of supporting the right of children to engage in public dialogue, among themselves and with adults alike.

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In addition to the Voter’s Guide, we felt it was vital that every child in the school have a chance to express her or his individual views. In the Writing Samples Folder provided, there is a sampling of the personal expression and writing done at each grade level. In addition, we have provided some photographs of our students at work in each grade in the Photos Folder.

Assessing the Impact

As we all reflected on the road we had taken with our students, we were struck by how they now saw themselves as agents of change, empowered to positively impact the people around them. Just as important, as they developed their own voices, they learned to fully listen to the voices of others and to share competing viewpoints respectfully and civilly. They learned that the issues facing the world are not black or white, right or wrong. They experienced learning that was connected to the real-world concerns of the adults around them and to the work adults do. They took ownership of the issues they immersed themselves in, developing a seriousness and maturity beyond what they initially felt themselves capable of. They experienced being a part of the public conversation in a way they could feel proud of.

Just as we asked our students across the grades at the beginning of the project whether they believed adults should listen to them, when the project was done and the 2016 election all over, we asked a sampling of them whether, having gone through the project and having contributed to the Voter’s Guide, which many adults read, they felt any differently about themselves. Many said no, but many more said yes.

Those who replied yes tended to focus on how much they had learned and that they now understood an issue that they hadn’t realized was an important issue and that they could now contribute to conversations about it. They also felt that this would be an issue they would continue to have an interest in. As one Fourth Grader said, “We learned so much about the issues and the solutions. So maybe it can change what we do in the world.” Another commented, “It affects the way I act in the world now. I didn’t know how clothes were made before.”

Many who replied yes also commented that it made them pay closer attention to the election process and the election itself, so they had a greater interest in politics and elections going forward. As one Second Grader said, “It made me think more about the election.” Another said, “If no one votes, you’ll probably lose what you want.” A Fifth Grader said, “I didn’t really think about politics before. It’s important!” while another one said, “It changed politics for me.” Sixth Graders commented that they liked learning about the candidates and their beliefs when they worked with the party platforms, and that they had learned a lot about the U.S. and how it functions. One Sixth Grader said, “It changed my mind on how much this affects me.”

When asked whether all that they had done had changed how they thought about having a voice in the world, many of our students said they had always felt that they had a right to speak up and be heard: “I was already thinking about myself that way,” in the words of a Second Grader. Others felt that they did think differently about having a voice.

  • “Now I know why you should use your voice.” Second Grader
  • “I learned you can ask your parents to share your ideas.” Second Grader
  • “I wanted my voice to be heard in the election, and I really thought about it and felt proud, and I really didn’t think that I could persuade them by saying what I think before.” Second Grader
  • “It shows that children, that just because they’re younger, that they don’t have less to say.” Third Grader
  • “It changes that I have a right and I can do stuff. Even if I can’t vote, I can encourage people to do stuff that I want to do.” Third Grader
  • “If you know that adults listen, you’re more likely to speak up. (If they won’t listen, though, what’s the point?)” Fifth Grader
  • “It gives me hope that there’s going to be a new generation of people who will be voting.” Sixth Grader
  • “It shows me that if we say we can make a change, we can do it.” Sixth Grader

Some of the Sixth Graders spoke about the difference the Voter’s Guide made to them. One of them was at one of the synagogues to which we had distributed copies of the Guide and noticed how few were left: “I felt so proud and thought, wow, this has actually gotten out to people and people are actually reading it.” They talked about canvassing for votes in states like Pennsylvania and Florida the weekend before the election and how moving the experience was for them. One student showed undecided voters the Voter’s Guide and was heartened by the positive reception it got. Another distributed student showed undecided voters the Voter’s Guide and was heartened by the positive reception it got. Another distributed about thirty copies outside of his family’s polling place on Election Day. While discouraged by the results of the election (“There are some people – on both sides – who have not treated people very well, beginning in the primaries. This is what America is now.”), they were also hopeful: “We’ll try again in four years.” One cited an older brother who will be able to vote in four years and had said he hoped a school would do this then so he would be able to read it and learn.

Because this project ended so recently, we are not able to gauge the full impact on our students and on us as teachers. In fact, we will never learn what some of the seeds we have planted will grow into as our students become adults themselves. However, we now have an obligation, going forward, to reinforce the learning that took place and reinforce our belief in the right of all children to speak up in the public sphere and to help shape the world in which they live now and the world they will be inheriting.