Putting Student Vote into practice

Student Vote's national program to educate Canadian youth on the importance of voting is interpreted in a variety of ways across Canada depending on the school that's participating in it.
Grade 11 student Brandee Pilgrim, 16, poses in front of Student Vote election material at Sir Robert L. Borden Business and Technical Institute in Scarborough.
In a country as diverse as Canada, it's not surprising a national program to educate Canadian youth on the importance of voting is interpreted in a variety of ways depending on the school that's participating in it.          

Student Vote, a non-partisan initiative geared toward teaching youth in Grades 5 to 12 about voting through mock elections, relies heavily on the schools' teachers to spread its messages of democracy.

And while Student Vote provides schools with a range of materials to aid them in their efforts – from Elections Canada ballot boxes to course curricula– it's essentially left up to the teachers to decide how to run the program.

Since 2003, more than 1.5 million elementary and high school students across Canada have participated in six Student Vote mock elections.

With their seventh campaign – the 2008 federal election – currently underway, Student Vote has so far registered 3,500 schools. Lindsay Mazzucco, co-founder of the Toronto-based organization, expects to have a total of 3,750 by the time registration closes on Sept. 26.

"It's a rewarding experience speaking to teachers," she says. "I hear the feedback from them about the experiences in their school and the impact [of Student Vote] … That definitely gets me excited."

Here are three schools from three cities with three different approaches to Student Vote:

  • <a href="#school1">Sir Robert L. Borden Business and Technical Institute</a>[/CUSTOM] (Toronto)
  • <a href="#school2">George Street Middle School</a>[/CUSTOM] (Fredericton)
  • <a href="#school3">National Sport School</a>[/CUSTOM] (Calgary)

<a name="school1">School: Sir Robert L. Borden Business and Technical Institute</a>[/CUSTOM]

Location: Toronto, Ont.

Participants: Approximately 580 students in Grades 9-12

Sixteen-year-old Jean Claude Saint Louis believes practice makes perfect when it comes to voting.

The Grade 11 student is one of 40 Grade 10 and 11 students at Sir Robert L. Borden participating in the Student Vote 2008 campaign.

Through the creation of posters and flyers on the four main parties and class debates on everything from party platforms to attack ads, Saint Louis and his classmates the Scarborough school are learning what it means to be active citizens.

"I think it's a really interesting experience because as we're not the legal age to vote yet, it gets us prepared to vote when we're 18," said Saint Louis, who created a poster on the NDP. "I will definitely vote when I'm 18."

Fellow students Zack Crozier and Brandee Pilgrim can't wait until they and the entire student body vote the week of Oct. 6.

Grade 9 and 12 students from National Sport School in Calgary research the different parties' websites.
"It's an experience to see your opinions [publicized] and see how many people agree with which party you choose," said Crozier, 16.

"It gives every student an opportunity to speak their mind," adds Pilgrim, 16, who like Saint Louis enjoys the chance to practise voting before she can legitimately do so.

"I don't know how to vote yet, so [Student Vote] gives me the opportunity to learn how, instead of just going in and making myself look like a fool," she said.

For their social science teacher, Shay-Lea O'Brien, a program like Student Vote couldn't have come at a better time. O'Brien became involved with the project after a fellow teacher ran a similar one at the school during last year's Ontario provincial election.

Ethics of attack ads attract students' interest

O'Brien sees Student Vote as a way to inform teens about the political system, something she feels some students view as foreign to them.

"When we first started the [school] year, more than half my students didn't know who our prime minister was, … [what] political party was in federal power right now and … what the issues were," said O'Brien.

"Now, they come in and talk about it, and they're excited."

O'Brien's students will place the party posters they've created around the school leading up to Oct. 6 and will run the polling station during the week.

The students are particularly interested in the mudslinging that has gone on during this election, O'Brien said, saying they come to her with questions on how attack ads and other negative campaigning can be allowed.

"They'll come in and say 'I saw a commercial on TV last night, and I can't believe that they put that on television. Can't they get in trouble for doing that to each other?'" she said.

<a name="school2">School: George Street Middle School</a>[/CUSTOM] (French immersion)

Location: Fredericton, N.B.

Participants: Approximately 700 students in Grades 6-8

Interactive elements are the basis of Lise Martin-Keilty's approach to Student Vote.

The Grade 8 social studies teacher at George Street Middle School in Fredericton, N. B., teaches her students about federal politics through tutorials and homework assignments she creates on her smartboard, a type of interactive blackboard that has a touch-screen connected to a projector and a computer.

Martin-Keilty is part of the Library of Parliament's Teacher Leadership program. In 2003, she spent a week at the Teachers Institute on Canadian Parliamentary Democracy in Ottawa learning about federal politics and the Parliament and now travels across New Brunswick educating fellow teachers about that and other programs offered by the government library.

She believes it's never too early to teach youth about voting.

"I had a student come up to me yesterday who thought the Senate was a person," says Martin-Keilty, who is one of 12 teachers at the French immersion middle school hosting the Student Vote 2008 program.

"The kids have no clue."

Low turnout of young voters in last election a motivating factor

Student voting at George Street will take place Oct. 6-10. At the end of that period, Martin-Keilty will tally the votes and submit them to Student Vote, which in turn will release the youth votes nationally after the closure of the official polls.

By educating them about the House of Commons, the Senate and how government works in general, Martin-Keilty and the other Student Vote teachers hope to ensure that when their students reach 18, they'll have a clear understanding of politics.

In the last election, voters in the18-24 age group had one of the lowest turnouts, says Martin-Keilty, who ran the 2004 and 2006 Student Vote federal elections at George Street.

"Kids were asked [why they don't vote], and they said, it's because they didn't understand it and they didn't care," she said. "My goal is to educate them about it, so they do care."

Teaching more than 60 13-year-olds about the importance of democracy isn't always an easy feat, Martin-Keilty says.

She makes things a little easier for herself with the use of the smartboard and other visuals, including the Internet, which she uses to look up parties' websites, the roles of MPs and the candidates running in the Fredericton riding.

Her lessons cover politics from the ground up, touching upon George Street's own student council, as well municipal, provincial and federal levels of government.

Martin-Keilty keeps parents in the loop by sending them weekly e-mails explaining what their children have learned in class and asking them to reinforce those lessons at home.

<a name="school3">School: National Sport School</a>[/CUSTOM] 

Location: Calgary, Alta.

Participants: Approximately 140 students in Grades 9-12

National Sport School's teachers Susanne Bechtold and Patrick Trehearne are in for a busy couple of weeks with their school's Student Vote 2008 campaign.

Bechtold, who teaches Grade 9 humanities at the Calgary sports-focused high school, will work with Trehearne, who runs the school's Grade 12 social studies program, to organize a forum and student vote day on Oct. 8.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Bechtold's class will create election scrapbooks, examine the media's coverage of the election and work as communications staff for Trehearne's students who, in turn, will divide up into groups to represent the Greens, Conservatives, Liberals and NDP at the forum.

Following the debate, the entire student body will vote.

"I believe in the political process and that democracy only works if we get involved and citizens participate," says Bechtold, who ran the 2004 and 2006 federal Student Vote campaigns at National.

"We can't really blame the government for … [being] a bad government if we don't get involved."

It's Bechtold and Trehearne's hope that when their students reach 18, they'll vote and get involved in every level of government.

"[In the last election], one girl's mother let her daughter answer all the phone calls when the candidates phoned, or when they came to the door she was the one who argued or discussed things with them," recalls Bechtold.

"So, at the periphery, they did get involved, and they knew who was running in their riding and collected the campaign literature."

Students farther left than parents on political spectrum

Trehearne says it will be interesting to see the results of the school's voting compared to the actual poll numbers.

"Most high school students in my experience tend to be left-of-centre in this province, and their natural inclination might be to support left-of-centre parties," he says. "But they are very cognizant of the fact their parents on the whole tend to vote Conservative.

"[The students] are interested in that dichotomy."

Grade 9 student Suzanne Stevenson and Grade 12 student Morgan Hunter agree with their teachers that it is crucial for youth to get involved in the political process.

Stevenson, who says the future of Alberta's oil sands is an important issue for her during this election since both of her parents work in the oil and gas industries, says candidates don't do enough to reach out to Canada's youth.

"Eventually, we're going to be able to vote, so the candidates should pay more attention to educating us as well," the 14-year-old says.

Candidates should visit local elementary and high schools during the election campaign, she said.

"They could do a lot more to involve us in the election process, especially because as kids in Grades 12, we might be [voting for ] their … parties in the coming year," adds Hunter, 17.

On Oct. 8, Hunter and four other Grade 12 students will represent the Conservative party at National's forum. Hunter says she likes such Student Vote activities because they give students a hands-on and fun way to learn about federal politics.

"By the time we do vote, we'll know what's going on," she said.