It would take a lot to be more politically engaged than James Wellemeyer, a senior at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.
He participates in Model United Nations, in Congressional Debate (a mock legislative assembly), is the head of his school’s chapter of Young Democrats, and helps staff voter-registration drives. But many of his peers, he notes, aren’t interested or even knowledgeable about the political system or even about how to register to vote.
He’s right. Voting rates among millennials are quite low, when compared to the Baby Boomers; less the half of eligible millennials voted in the 2012 election, NPR reported last year.
Rather than sit around moping about this sad state of affairs, Wellemeyer has cooked up one potential solution: a a civics textbook, called Young Voices, that draws heavily on the experiences of some 60 civically engaged young people and their perspectives on the U.S. political system.
“Many young people were not voting and they were not getting involved in politics, and probably a reason for that is the way they were introduced to politics didn’t interest them. A way to get them more interested is to show them that other young people are involved, and to teach them how to go about voting,” he said in an interview.
Wellemeyer found most of the youths he interviewed through online searches and word-of-mouth, and reached out directly to them through Facebook and other social-media channels. He spent last summer conducting interviews and writing the textbook, with help from a grant he won from his high school.
You can learn more about Young Voices and request a free copy at his website. It’s aimed at students in grades 6-8, because he suspects those are the grades that start losing kids when it comes to civic engagement.
“What I’ve seen in many middle schools is that, even though there are civics courses, they are not necessarily teaching kids how to vote or anything more practical beyond going over the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
To be sure, the textbook is probably better thought of as a supplement than a core text: It’s a bit skimpy on the historical development of the U.S. political system. But it’s potentially a great icebreaker for class discussion. Political beliefs tend to be closely held, and so it’s often hard for students to talk about their thoughts and questions about how the government works (and how it might work better), let alone for teachers to create safe, structured environments for them to do so.
A handful of schools are already planning to use the textbook, as is the Galloway Township public school system in New Jersey. Wellemeyer says about 25 other schools are currently reviewing it. However they choose to use it, he thinks any course should reserve a lot of time for class discussion.
And his long-term goal for the textbook?
“Politics is often considered not for young people, but if you show young people in the classrooms that there are all these other kids involved in politics and that they all have strong opinions about political topics, then they’ll think: ‘I, too, despite my age can get involved,’ ” he said. “And then they will vote.”
Photo: Courtesy of James Wellemeyer
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.