“You’re never too young to have your voices heard.”
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell shared these uplifting words as she stared into the wide eyes of the entire student body of the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor.
On Nov. 4, School Voting Day, Rep. Dingell had come to the school to address the students before they cast their votes in the school’s simulation of the presidential election of 1800, incumbent John Adams vs. Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
In an effort to step away from the nastiness of the Clinton-Trump presidential election, the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor had decided to play out in the halls and classrooms an historical election from more than 200 years ago as a means to experience firsthand a modern election process.
Spearheaded by Laura Pasek, a third- and fourth-grade general studies teacher, 16 students were divided between John Adams, a Federalist, and Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic Republican.
“Going back in history allowed students to think critically for themselves rather than recite what they’d heard at home,” Pasek said.
Like live theater performed on an historical stage, the 8- and 9-year-old students acted out every phase of a presidential election: party conventions, campaign speeches and rallies, and a debate. They plastered school walls with campaign slogans and canvassed every classroom from kindergarten to fifth grade.
The simulation model has roots in the research of University of Michigan lecturer Jeff Stanzler, who also directs the Interactive Communications and Simulations (ICS) group, along with his faculty colleagues Michael Fahy and Jeff Kupperman. The group, based at the U-M School of Education, creates and facilitates web simulations for upper elementary, middle and high school students. The model encourages the use of historical figures to address modern dilemmas through role play.
On Nov. 4, the big day had arrived. Was it going to be Adams — or Jefferson?
For these students, it wasn’t just a vote. It was an informed vote, a choice based on information presented to them over six weeks.
For example, nearly every student knew that John Adams didn’t own slaves, as well as his position on the Alien and Sedition Acts. They learned Adams had supported Congress’ passing a law that immigrants had to live in the country for 14 years rather than five to vote so that foreigners wouldn’t influence the election and the political process in general.
They also learned about sanctioning the deportation of non-citizens who were deemed dangerous, as well as the Sedition Act’s restricting speech critical of the federal government.
The students knew that Thomas Jefferson had brought ice cream to the U.S. and popularized it and that he was also the principal author of the Declaration of Independence — yet he owned slaves.
Of course, campaign issues like these went over the heads of the kindergartners, who did not consider them much; they weren’t too concerned about the difference between big vs. small government. Yet they did learn to value the importance of their choices. In advance of Voting Day, Debbie Carbone, their teacher, encouraged them to consider the character traits of the individuals running for office to make an informed choice.
Dingell echoed these sentiments. “What are the qualities we look for in a president? Leadership, bravery, compassion, honesty.” What mattered most, said Dingell, was that they voted rather than for whom they voted.
Dressed in a red dress and stars-and-stripes wool coat made of a Pendleton blanket, Dingell spoke to the students about her work in the U.S. Congress and the importance of the electoral process.
“Students, learn to make your own decisions rather than vote based on who your friends are voting for,” she said. “Do you respect each other? Can you disagree with each other? But are we one community? Are we all together? Do we always treat each other with kindness and respect?”
Out came a spirited cry from one of the youngest voices, a kindergartner sitting cross-legged on the gray carpet. He drew an association from what he had learned at the school weeks before from the Bible Players, a Jewish improv duo that uses Torah plays and improv games to teach Jewish values.
“It’s like kehillah,” said the little guy, invoking the Hebrew word for community.
The 5-year-old in the front row lifted his right hand said, “Keh,” then held up his left hand with a “Hee” and finally clapped the hands together with a thwack, “Lah.” Then a pronounced “Kehillah!”
“What is that?” Dingell asked.
“One community,” explained Carbone.
“That’s perfect!” Dingell smiled.
Standing on the side, beaming in pride, was Jennifer Erlich Rosenberg, head of Hebrew Day School.
“When I see our very youngest students spontaneously recognizing the values of community and expressing them so appropriately to our congressional representative, I feel proud and confident that we’re helping to raise the next generation of compassionate, engaged and committed Jewish citizens and leaders,” she said.
What were the 2016 results of the election of 1800?
Jefferson was again victorious, winning 54.3 percent of the votes. As in a true election, Hannah, a.k.a. John Adams, gave a concession speech and Livnat, a.k.a. Thomas Jefferson, gave an acceptance speech.
Even an outsider could glean the kind of engaged learning going on in the classroom.
“This kind of creative, authentic learning happens all over our school every day,” Rosenberg said. “And it’s in times like these that we count on the role models in the lives of our children, both parents and teachers. Our teachers engage our students to interact appropriately, respectfully and with passion. With that in place, learning and growth flourish.”
It is this modeling of respect and passion that empowers a 5-year-old to yell out his vision to the entire assembly.
And for the entire assembly to embrace it.
By Ruth Ebenstein, Special to the Jewish News