First appeared as an opinion piece in The Oregonian.
Earlier this month, I felt a sense of anticipation for the results of the midterm elections. It was clear that the outcome could lead to sweeping changes across the nation, and have a huge impact on a group that is primarily not old enough yet to vote: high school students.
I have seen students get involved with the midterms by canvassing, phone banking, text banking, sharing information on social media and encouraging their parents and siblings to vote. Calla Rhodes, a junior in Portland, says that a lot of students are becoming more civically engaged because they realize their future is on the line.
Students not only followed elections in Oregon, but also the national races, such as the senate race in Texas between U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz as well as measures like Florida’s Amendment 4. However, while student civic engagement may have grown, my classrooms remained relatively void of substantive conversations regarding democracy and current events.
The day after the Nov. 6 election, students across Oregon recounted how most educators refrained from mentioning the midterms or said little more than that they had happened the previous day. Many students had excitedly watched the results and looked forward to learning how it would impact their future. But they were left without an outlet to have open conversation.
Marvin Elzey, a junior in Reedsport, lamented that students -- and broader society – sometimes don’t fully understand the impact of elections because they aren’t talked about in the classroom.
In my experience, educators don’t often have qualms sharing their everyday political leanings. So why the hesitation to speak -- either from a biased or nonpartisan standpoint -- about the election and how it shifted control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republican to Democrat? Major achievements, including the first Native American and Muslim women elected to Congress, weren’t even touched on by our teachers.
At the very least, we should have spent time discussing what Gov. Kate Brown’s re-election and the new Democratic supermajority in the legislature means.
Though students are engaging in civic engagement at an increasing rate, many schools remain void of opportunities to reflect upon, connect with, and learn from these events. “Educational culture is often focused solely on the classroom,” says Justin Thach, a senior in Salem, “but as students have deeply engaged with social and political affairs, the education system has failed to keep up.”
Schools must foster a clearer link between what students learn and what students are doing with it – that starts with authentic conversations.
We need a change. Educators need to provide space for students to learn about the democratic process, discuss its outcomes and understand its impact. Doing so will almost surely increase youth civic engagement. But more important, it will boost our understanding and involvement in the issues defining the state of our nation.
Dana Smiley is a junior at Lincoln High School and a member of Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.