An Educator’s View: At My Mississippi HS, We Registered Students to Vote & Drove Them to the Polls — and Helped Create the Engaged Citizens of Tomorrow

High school seniors pose with the author after a school voter registration drive. (Kaitlyn Barton)

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Teachers are tasked with a lot, from educating America’s future workforce to keeping kids safe during the day. And let’s be honest: We as teachers are exhausted, especially as COVID-19 continues to ravage our schools and communities.

Arguably, one of our most critical duties as educators is to build active citizens — young people ready to engage with their peers and neighbors in civic life. Too often, this responsibility gets pushed aside for the more pressing issues of the job. So, here’s some ways I’ve found in the classroom that can help students prepare for active citizenship and fulfill one of their most important civic responsibilities: voting.

1 Help students register to vote

Policy decisions directly impact students’ lives, and they deserve to be part of the conversation. One way to do this is to have their voices heard at the ballot box. Teachers can take 10 minutes of time at the start of class to share easy resources for getting students over 18 registered, likeVote.org, and offer to answer their questions after class.

Another way to help is through a voter registration drive. For the last four years, I’ve worked with a group of students to host a registration drive at our school. The students create the campaign and share the importance of voting with their peers, often by engaging with them on social media. During the height of COVID, a fellow teacher and I expanded our reach by hosting a drive-through voter registration drive in the school driveway after class, creating an opportunity to engage students’ families and the wider community.

2 Assist students with a plan to vote

Voting for the first time is exciting and, at times, intimidating. From limited access to transportation to the anxiety of casting a ballot for the first time, many young people find getting to the polls to be a challenge. Making a plan to vote is a critical step in ensuring people use their voices on Election Day. Let students know about early voting opportunities if they exist in your state. Teach them how to find their polling location. And encourage them to check who is on the ballot before they head to vote.

If time and resources allow, expanding access to transportation can also be incredibly helpful for students, especially in rural areas. As a teacher in Mississippi, I created the Ballot and Ride initiative to ensure students had a ride to the polls. We created a bus route of all the polling precincts and loaded students onto a school bus, taking them on the ultimate field trip to vote for the first time. At each polling place, students celebrated their peers as they got off the bus to vote, creating a human tunnel with their hands that their classmates could pass through on their way in the precinct door. One of my favorite memories was watching a student exit the polling precinct with the biggest smile on his face. “Man, I did that!” he said, as he got back on the bus after casting his first ballot.

3Talk openly about civic participation

Make voting a big deal. Whether your students are over 18 or not, incorporating the importance of civic engagement — from voting to writing letters to members of Congress — into lessons and curriculum can ensure that habits of good citizenship are formed early. In fact, a study from Tufts University found that talking about voting before students turned 18 increased their likelihood of voting by 40 percent.

Discussions about civic engagement should go beyond 12th grade social studies class. They can start in a sixth-grade math class, where teachers can use election results for lessons in statistics. Or, they can begin in a 10th-grade English class, where students can be encouraged to research an issue they care about, learn to write an argumentative essay and then use that to write letters with a call to action to their elected officials.

Most importantly, get creative. My students often joke about my “voting wardrobe,” a collection of loud, usually funny voting T-shirts. Passion is infectious, and when you make voting into a big deal, something to be excited about and proud of, students will share in that enthusiasm. Am I the teacher who is known for zany voting outfits? Yes. Are students super excited to show me their own voting outfits when they get to cast their ballot for the first time? You bet.

4 Serve as a resource for your students

Be there for your students when they have questions about our democracy. One example where I’ve experienced this is around the challenges in understanding voting laws, especially with so many changes in recent years. When I took my first group of students to vote with Ballot & Ride in 2018, several were initially turned away at the polls because of a clerical error. Together, we navigated the system by demanding a provisional ballot. One student said that if he’d gone to vote alone, he would not have known what to do.

I have witnessed the power of youthful zeal as my students organized a March for our Lives event in our town and conducted a congressional letter-writing campaign to appeal for common-sense gun reform after the Parkland shooting. It is important to teach students the importance of civic participation at multiple levels. It begins with voting but expands to encompass so much more. Teachers have the opportunity and responsibility to introduce their students to the power of civic participation and create life-long active citizens.

Kaitlyn Barton is a dean of instruction in Houston. Previously, she taught English in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she created the Ballot & Ride initiative to help student voters get to the polls.

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