Starting Small: Today’s High School Students Can Spark a Conversation About Democracy

The youngest voters consistently cast ballots the least — 18- to 24 year-olds voted almost 10 percent less than 25- to 34-year-olds in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Time and time again, young voters vote at a rate less than their share of the population, while other generations voter over their share.

In fact, the Census data shows that in the five general elections leading up to 2016, voters younger than 29 voted at least 4 percent under their eligibility, while those older than 45 voted at least 5 percent over their eligibility.

It may seem early, but taking an interest in democracy can prepare students for their first election day.

Sometimes that means having difficult conversations about topics like race and bias, something schools may not be prepared for.

Forty percent of teachers, school counselors, and administrators don’t believe their schools have action plans in place to address hate and bias, according to a survey from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Involved students can help lead schools toward these conversations and a better understanding of our democracy. Here are some ways high school students can become active citizens today:

  1. Listen to your peers.

Value the opinions of others, even when you don’t agree. Just as you may have fierce reasons for your stances, so do those around you. Practice active listening when talking to people — try maintaining eye contact and providing feedback as you go.

Anne Baldwin, 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, says students don’t have to be the loudest in the room to gain something from the conversation. “My hope is they are listening to others and they are going, ‘Oh, maybe what I’ve been brought up to think isn’t really cool, and I should reexamine that.’ ”

  1. Learn to recognize misinformation.

In the era of fake news, it’s more important than ever to stay informed. A recent study found that Twitter users saw more news from fake and biased sources than professional ones. The best way to learn to recognize what’s wrong is to become familiar with what’s right.

Set up your phone to alert you when big stories break and follow some of your favorite news sources on social media. Mix it up and update yourself on stories from the local to the international level.

  1. Involve members of faculty or staff when possible.

Your teachers and school counselors can be great resources for information or to mediate conversations among students. Ask questions and see if they can incorporate real-world examples into their lessons.

Joseph Feola, a school counselor at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and adjunct professor for Counseling@NYU, which offers an online masters in school counseling from NYU Steinhardt, recognizes that as much as your teachers can help you, the same can be done for them. “Preparing our educators with the necessary tools to engage in such complex, personal dialogue is crucial for effective progress,” he said.

  1. Get involved in student government.

Learning by experience is one of the most effective ways to understand something. Running for a position in your student government can give you exposure to the political process as well as what it’s like to represent a group of people and make decisions on their behalf.

Students who aren’t interested in running for office can still get involved through nonelected assembly positions or acts as simple as voting for those who are running. These elections may not be for president of the United States, but the winner will still have the power to make choices that impact your life.

It’s important to remember that it takes small changes to lead to big ones — and those small changes can be as simple as needed. Getting involved doesn’t need to be difficult and students who want to see their generation make a difference in the future can act now.

Alexis Anderson is a Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs. 


Photo by greaterumbrage


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