But Will They Vote in 2012?

By Meredith Barnett

Of the tens of thousands who have been rallying for workers rights in cities and towns across the country, high school students have been among the most vocal groups. In Wisconsin and Idaho especially, teenagers are joining their parents and teachers in large-scale protests against legislation that they believe will jeopardize their education and their future. Many educators believe this upsurge of civic action is a model lesson for their students in how ordinary citizens can affect change.

It’s fitting then that this movement emerged so close to the 40th anniversary of the 26th amendment. In 1971, young activists came together to rally for 18-year-olds to be given the right to vote. Traditionally, young people have been the lowest voting segment of the general population. Although youth voters made up 18% of the voting public in 2008, that share declined to 11% in 2010.

But today, even though more young voters are exercising their political voices than ever, getting youth engaged – and staying engaged – can be a challenge.

That’s where Democracy Day comes in.

“Many of our students are unaware of how to register to vote or even the importance of them voting,” says Meaghan Barber-Smith, a teacher at Bakersfield, California’s Highland High School.

Barber-Smith has signed up to participate in the National Education Association’s and Rock the Vote’s first-ever Democracy Day on March 23rd (the day the House of Representatives approved the 26th amendment in 1971), an exciting new event designed to energize and inform students about voting. To kick it off, Rock the Vote and NEA call on educators to celebrate civic engagement in their classrooms with a Democracy Class lesson plan, a curriculum that uses video and interactive activities to educate soon-to-be voters.

“Turning 18 and becoming eligible to vote is a tremendous rite of passage,” said Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote. “Junior and senior year of high school is the ideal moment to connect with young people, and give them the tools to become life-long voters and participants in our country’s democracy.”

Barber-Smith is excited to use the lesson with her school’s 400 seniors during a week where 9th through 11th graders have state testing.

“I thought that the Rock the Vote lesson would be a perfect fit for them,” says this English teacher, who’s partnering with a fellow educator to deliver the curriculum. “I am trying to plan activities for our seniors that will benefit them for the real world, which they will be quickly joining in a matter of months.”

It’s a proven model that Rock the Vote has already piloted in several states.

Democracy Day will be a recurring event, rallying the next generation of voters to engage. After all, by the 2012 election, young people will make up 24% of the voting age public. Democracy Day is one way to make sure they’re prepared and excited to actually turn up and vote.

“I’m hoping that they will all walk away with an understanding of the importance of voting and that it’s their civic duty to do so,” says Barber-Smith.



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