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Real-Life Civics Lessons

In a new book, a 6th grade teacher recounts her improbable (and highly educational) run for Congress

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As the country counts down to an expected record voter turnout on Election Day, enterprising teachers are no doubt taking advantage of the national teachable moment by holding mock elections and otherwise immersing students in details of the election process.

Tierney Cahill was teaching just such a lesson to her 6th graders in 1999 when they challenged her notions of democracy. If anyone can run for elected office, her students asked, why didn’t she? Not wanting to make her students even more cynical by dodging the question, Cahill made them a deal. If they agreed to manage her campaign, she would run for U.S. Congress.

Cahill, along with co-author Linen Gross, has now published a book chronicling her journey from the front of the classroom to Democratic candidate for Nevada’s second congressional district. Ms. Cahill for Congress (Ballantine Books, $14) provides lessons not only about the political process but also about a teacher’s dedication and skill.

Ever the educator, Cahill envisioned the campaign as a real-life, interdisciplinary classroom activity that would provide her students lessons on everything from government and civic engagement to mathematics and language arts. What the single mother of three didn’t know is that she, too, would learn some lessons about democracy on the campaign trail.

Beyond showing her students that democracy is in fact for everyone, Cahill hoped to challenge them to think critically and work together. Running her campaign as an unknown dependent entirely on donations, the class would have to work hard and strategically to market their candidate, with resources far short of the $1.3 million typically spent during an average congressional campaign. Cahill notes that working together in the heat of the campaign helped the students listen to what others had to say and respond with respect rather than ridicule, deflecting the usual middle school attitudes.

There are some laugh-out-loud moments Cahill’s story. The teacher remembers her first meeting and eventual endorsement from Dennis Hof, the owner of an established called Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Hof hoped that Cahill’s strong education platform would mean higher earnings for workers — and thus potentially more customers for the state’s regulated brothels.

But there are some sad parts, too. Cahill closes the first chapter by writing that if she knew what she was in for, she would never have agreed to run. What started as an inspirational lesson for her class had some unpredicted costs for herself. Cahill’s home was broken into, and all her campaign material was stolen. She was fired from her second job as a waitress, and then her third job as a freelance real estate agent. Struggling to pay the bills, and with almost no support from the state’s Democratic Party, the campaign seems like a failure.

Spoiler alert—Cahill doesn’t win the general election (though she did win the Democratic primary). But the speech she delivered to her little campaign managers about the accomplishments of their campaign shows they didn’t lose as well. Through one-of-a-kind experience of running a campaign, the kids had come out of their shells and developed skills they never could have from a normal civics lesson.

While a congressional run may not be in the cards for every teacher—based on her experience, Cahill probably wouldn’t recommend it—the memoir is an inspirational read, and a way to learn from Cahill’s experience without undergoing the actual strain of running for office.

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