Teaching Democracy and Active Citizenship with Student Vote

Lindsay Mazzuco (Introduction)

Introduction by Lindsay Mazzuco

For the last 15 years, Ontario teachers have been engaging their students and their schools in a program that brings real world democracy into their classroom and helps students develop the habit of active and engaged citizenship.

Student Vote is a parallel election for students under the voting age that coincides with general elections. Students explore government and the electoral process, research the parties and platforms, discuss relevant issues with family and friends, and cast ballots for official candidates.

The vision is simple: teach kids about how to vote and why, foster their connection to the community, and eventually, reverse the decline in voter turnout.

The very first Student Vote program was delivered in conjunction with the 2003 Ontario provincial election. Coordinated by a small team and involving more than 800 teachers, the trial gave 300,000 students an opportunity to experience the voting process firsthand.

The founders have grown this program into a national civic education charity, CIVIX. In addition to delivering 38 Student Vote projects across Canada, CIVIX offers programming between elections focused on government budgets, news literacy and elected representatives, as well as professional development opportunities for teachers.

The network of teachers involved in Student Vote has grown steadily over the years. In the last federal election, more than 3,200 Ontario teachers registered their schools to participate and another 6,000 Ontario teachers implemented the program. The commitment of these teachers is truly remarkable and inspiring.

An independent evaluation commissioned by Elections Canada in 2015 found that Student Vote had a positive impact on student knowledge and understanding of Canadian politics and elections as well as on student interest and confidence in discussing politics and future voting intentions.

As recent events around the world have shown, democracy is fragile and cannot be taken for granted. A healthy and robust democracy demands an educated, informed and committed citizenry that understands the value of our political system, and how to act within it.

Ontario will have three elections within three school years, beginning with the provincial election this spring. We asked eight teachers why they are involved with Student Vote. Here is what they said:

Developing Critical Thinking Skills
Serena Yoon, Peel Teacher Local

Voting is extremely important and people too often do not know why they are voting for a candidate. I like how Student Vote allows students to examine the issues presented by the parties and through the media as they happen. Students learn by doing. Through the study of party platforms and candidate ads, students can react, analyze and draw their own conclusions. When students can articulate their own reasons for supporting an issue, they are demonstrating the ability to use critical thinking skills and choose the candidate who will best represent their wishes. As a bonus, their interest in the election can spark discussions at home and help parents decide what is important to them as well.

Excitement Of Voting Day
Kim Davidson, Elementary Teachers of Toronto

In this information age, especially with the advent of ‘fake news,’ it is more important than ever to provide students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. The activities and lesson plans developed by CIVIX allow students to practice these skills in a real-world setting. My favourite part is always the excitement of Student Vote day – students feel mature and empowered. Participating in Student Vote is also an easy way to get parents involved with student learning. I’ve had a number of students tell me over the years that the program gave them the voice to encourage their parents to go out and vote.

For the upcoming provincial election, my plan is to make Student Vote the culminating activity in a larger inquiry-based Social Studies unit of study, which I will be co-teaching with grades 5 and 6 teachers. The unit will focus on the role of government in our community, as well as investigate the influence of media on political points of view (I also teach media literacy). I am new at my school so I will run the program with just a few classes this year, with the goal of growing it to a whole school activity in future elections.

Sharing What Students Have Learned At Home
Chris Brouillard-Coyle, Greater Essex Teacher Local

The best part of Student Vote in my experience is when students actually vote and the results are shared. Students like to see how their votes compare with those from other schools, as well as how their votes matched up with the voters in Canada.

I plan on working through the entire Student Vote resource for the upcoming provincial election. The activities are a great way to get students involved and interested in learning about democracy and the important role of citizens. Ideally, they will then share what they’ve learned with their parents, and perhaps be able to encourage others to take on a more active role in the democratic process that is a pillar of our country.

Learning The Responsibilities That Come With The Right To Vote
Alisha Mohammed, Elementary Teachers of Toronto

Student Vote allows students to learn about the responsibilities that come with the right to vote. I participate because it’s an experience that brings the real world into the classroom. The best part of Student Vote is watching students become excited about what they’re learning. They follow and engage in campaigns, think critically about what the candidates are promising and learn about the issues affecting their own neighbourhoods within the context of the province. It makes the study of government a truly authentic experience.

For the upcoming election, we will be doing a variety of activities, including classroom learning about the levels of government with a focus on the provincial level, community walks to observe the impact of media (collateral) on the campaign, research and presentations of party platforms to junior classes by intermediate students, a student-led media campaign to advertise the importance of voting and student debates on important party platform issues. We will