How Fishing in Costa Rica Landed a Voter Education Project in America

 

Jay L. Cravath and
Thomas M. McGowan

When thunderstorms grounded an aircraft carrying a fishing party near the small town of Liberia in Costa Rica some years back, it was the unexpected comment of a local taxi driver that set his American passengers to thinking anew about civic education in the United States. Businessman Bob Evans and two friends, Arizona newspapermen Max Jennings and Charles Wahlheim, were discussing Arizona politics and speculating about whether the low turnout in a recent election accounted for what they saw as a poor choice by voters.

A reference by the taxi driver to the politics of his own country prompted Jennings to ask how many Costa Ricans typically cast their ballots in elections. “Oh, about eighty percent,” the driver replied, stunning his passengers. To their next question—“How do you get out such a vote?”—the driver’s response was a spontaneous lecture on the school curriculum. A carefully designed program on the importance of voting follows students from the primary grades up through high school, he explained. The curriculum features in-depth study of the electoral process and involves students in evaluating candidate statements and researching issues. The driver remembered lively debates over the dinner table about candidate qualifications. Some evenings, his home sizzled with energy as he and his siblings argued political issues with their parents.1

While this vote-centered curriculum intrigued his listeners, it was a key aspect of the Costa Rican program that really sparked their interest. They learned that school children accompany their parents to the voting booth and cast mock ballots on election day. Though these votes do not “count,” they are tallied and published with the official results. By the time the fishing party returned home, it was with the idea of creating a school program on voter education using the Costa Rican curriculum as a model. They christened their project “Kids Voting USA.”

 

Up and Running

Kids Voting was launched in the general election of 1988, when 30,000 children in the Phoenix area accompanied their parents to voting places and cast their own ballots under the organization’s banner. This pilot program was the culmination of several years of effort to raise funds, enlist local school districts as partners, and develop a curriculum for the program. By the midterm election of 1998, 5 million young people from 38 states entered voting booths as Kids Voting USA participants.

Kids Voting USA, established in 1991, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, national organization with local, intrastate, and state affiliates. The national organization sets policy, provides curriculum materials, and recruits affiliates, each of which assumes responsibility for the “nuts and bolts” operation of the project within its area. Coordinators follow guidelines for fundraising, program, and volunteer training. With their assistance, community boards establish working relationships with local school districts and raise funds to purchase equipment (such as kids’ voting booths and ballot boxes) and to train adult volunteers to work in polling places on election day.

In the weeks before the election, students prepare to “hold the office of citizen” by studying voting procedures and campaign issues using the Kids Voting curriculum. They accompany their parents to the polls, where volunteers mirror officials by serving as clerks, marshals, inspectors, and judges as students cast their ballots.

Kids Voting USA has earned endorsements from educators and civic leaders and has raised funds successfully from individuals, foundations, and corporations. Research by Steven Chaffee and others finds that Kids Voting USA activities are effective learning tools for students—and sometimes for parents, too. For example, Chaffee and co-researcher Michael McDevitt identified a “trickle-up” effect in which children’s curiosity and knowledge about the election process can transfer to adult family members, offering them a “second chance” at the political socialization they may have missed in their own youth.2

Despite its successful growth, the project is not without difficulties. Fundraising can be problematic, and some communities struggle to keep their programs going. Mobilizing volunteers for election day can also be difficult. A typical schedule requires eighteen people, each serving a two-hour shift. Community boards need both commitment and human resource expertise to keep their programs operating.

In years to come, test-driven curricula may prove a more troublesome obstacle for Kids Voting USA than these practical concerns. School administrators should recognize that Kids Voting USA activities were designed by educators to address skill and content standards appropriate to each grade level.

 

Activities and Ideas

Ultimately, a voter education program rises or falls on the quality of its instructional materials. The Kids Voting USA curriculum Civics Alive! offers teachers many creative and engaging lesson ideas. While nominally a K-12 curriculum, many activities seem most appropriate to grades K-8, and in practice this is where the program is most widely used.

The elementary curriculum divides lesson plans by grade level, with activities designed to reflect children’s growing cognitive sophistication. Activities are grouped under core concepts, from the introductory “We Cooperate” to “I Have the Responsibility to Vote” to “I Stay Involved.” In a sample activity for grade one, “I Have a Right to Vote,” each child mirrors the actions of a facing partner. This activity is followed by questions that guide students toward the understanding that citizens hold the right to determine their own actions.

A middle school activity, “Suffrage Sequence Cards,” groups students into cooperative teams, each monitored by a “Sequence Master.” To begin the game, a member of each team draws a card on which a brief historical statement is written (e.g., “Wyoming becomes a state and is the first state to have a constitution allowing women to vote”). Team representatives draw cards in turn, but only keep those cards which they have correctly placed in chronological order, as determined by the “Sequence Master.” Play continues until the supply of cards is exhausted. As in the primary lesson, students must interact and work together, but the fifth graders must also interpret more complex rules and bring prior knowledge to the activity.

This article features a lesson called “Debate Bingo” drawn from Presidential Debates: A Teacher’s Guide, available free at the websites for both Kids Voting USA and the Commission on Presidential Debates.3 More activities from this guide appear in the article “Presidential Debates: Not a Spectator Sport” in this issue of Social Education.

 

Curriculum Foundations

Most Kids Voting USA lessons attempt to engage what Gardner terms the “multiple intelligences” of young learners.4 Each lesson features post-activity questions that encourage student inquiry and reflection. Some social educators might press for more affective content (the lessons emphasize knowledge and skills over dispositions), but others would argue that the activities reflect an appropriate ratio of what Peter Martorella calls “head to hand to heart” activities.5

Teachers can adapt the lesson ideas as classroom circumstances dictate. One way of enhancing the program’s effects is to introduce related works of children’s literature that help children construct more complex understandings of the political process and their role in it.6 Another way is to integrate activities across disciplines—for example, by having student journal writing focus on an upcoming political campaign. The lessons list quality resources to help enrich activities.

Finally, teachers can examine James Comer’s school climate model for ideas on how to create a learning environment in which voter education can best flourish.7 In a “Comer school,” members of the learning community interact in personal ways and practice forms of discourse that can readily be translated to the discussion of politics. Students learn how to take and defend their own stands on an issue, while remaining open to divergent ideas and respectful of other students’ opinions. Parents assume an active role in the life of the school and are urged to spend as much time listening to their children’s ideas as they do expressing their own views. Dinner coversation might never be the same.

Kids Voting activities take time and effort on the part of teachers and community volunteers. Still, a school that embraces the project can manifest the rich, family-based, participatory climate that the founders of Kids Voting USA first learned about when they landed in a Costa Rican village thirteen years ago.

 

Notes

1. Interviews with Bob Evans, Max Jennings, and Charles Wahlheim in person and by telephone by Jay Cravath (March 2000).

2. Michael McDevitt and Steven H. Chaffee, “Second Chance Political Socialization: ‘Trickle-Up’ Effects of Children on Parents,” in Thomas J. Johnson, Carol E. Hays, and Scott P. Hays, eds., Engaging the Public: How Government and the Media Can Reinvigorate American Democracy (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1998).

3. Presidential Debates: A Teacher’s Guide can be found at the website for Kids Voting USA (www.kidsvotingusa.org) and at the website for the Commission on Presidential Debates (www.debates.org), which published the guide.

4. Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

5. Peter Martorella, Social Studies for Elementary School Children: Developing Young Citizens, 2nd ed. (Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1998).

6. Thomas M. McGowan, Lynnette Erickson, and Judith A. Neufeld, “With Reason and Rhetoric: Building the Case for the Literature-Social Studies Connection,” Social Education 60, no. 4 (April/May 1996): 203-207; for an annotated list of recommended picture books, juvenile fiction, and juvenile nonfiction, please contact Thomas McGowan at tmcgowan@asu.edu.

7. David A. Squires and Robert D. Kranyik, “The Comer Program: Changing School Culture,” Educational Leadership (Dec/Jan 1998): 29-32.

 

About the AuthorS

Jay L. Cravath is a graduate assistant, and Thomas M. McGowan is a professor, in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe.

 

For more information regarding Kids Voting USA, please contact: Kids Voting USA, 398 South Mill Avenue, Suite 304, Tempe, Arizona 85281; (480) 921-3727 (phone); www.kidsvotingusa.org (website).