To Andrew Conneen and Daniel Larsen, election season is a chance to live what they teach. This year, the government and politics teachers at Adlai E. Stevenson High School near Chicago have organized a homecoming parade featuring politicians; a televised, student-moderated debate between congressional candidates; and an election-night broadcast on the school’s radio station.
They say it’s a natural extension of their lessons. “It’s what we try to do every day—to say these concepts [students] read about in their textbooks are real,” Conneen explains. “American government is the only class that’s going to arrive on your doorstep every day in the form of your newspaper.”
And thanks to the bonds they’ve made with politicians, some of that government has come to the doorstep of their classrooms. In late August, for example, their congressman, U.S. Representative Mark Kirk, dropped in with 10 officials from the new Afghan government. The visitors fielded student questions on the Taliban, women’s rights, and the creation of a democracy.
All this political involvement has rubbed off on students—each election season, the county clerk trains Conneen and Larson’s pupils as election judges and voter registrars. The latter have been particularly effective, signing up more than 3,000 student voters to date. The teachers also arrange for kids to help out with campaigns, and protégés have gone on to work for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and current House Speaker Dennis Hastert, among others. “I was already interested in politics, but I was surprised that [their] classes deepened a passion I didn’t think was going to get any deeper,” says former student Talia Stein, who is now interning in Pennsylvania for Democrat Bob Casey’s U.S. Senate campaign.
Teaching, say Conneen and Larsen, is a way to safeguard democracy. Students “have to learn how to make this machine work,” Larsen says. “The stakes are too high if they don’t.”
To read Conneen and Larsen’s blog about current events, go to: www.citizenu.org
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Political Junkies