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I worked out this morning — not so novel, but today I was conscious enough to think. Usually I try and stumble from my bed into exercise, so my body doesn’t realize what I’m doing. As I morphed into a “shiny, happy person” (thanks MtK), I began to look around. All of the people in the gym — from the 800 year old man pulling an immense amount of weight on the rower (he literally had Popeye arms!!!), to the woman lying on the mat lifting a 20 oz. stability ball (up-down, up-down) — we all were practicing to be healthier people.

Next door my girls were in basketball camp, practicing to be better at a game they love — OK, a game one of them loves, the other tolerates. They do dance camp two weeks from now, so life will be balanced. The point is that they are investing time to become better at something. Now as a mom, I can sign them up to do anything from piano to etiquette to the art of sushi rolling…. and at 8 and 10, they know the route to learning something involves exposure and practice.

What does this paean to the involved child have to do with politics?

I’m program co-chair of our school’s PTA for the coming year — and one of the plans we’ve discussed is a mock election. We would create several units that would teach the kids about a citizen’s rights and responsibilities within a democracy and the project would culminate in an election in which the kids vote, using the actual candidates, for president. Our unit is modeled on the fabulous programs like KidsVote that don’t exist in our corner of the south.

Now we’ve received a little pushback on the plan out of concern. True and loving concern that in a divided nation, talking about politics would just be divisive. My problem with that is that not talking about politics is even worse. While kids are tested on reading and math — civics doesn’t lend itself to EOG testing and often falls through the cracks… and I worry. What happens to a society if no one knows how it’s supposed to work? Look at Zimbabwe — watch a society falling apart as the democratic process is murdered in the street. If our kids don’t know the Bill of Rights, the mechanics of how we vote, the passions for why we vote — can our democracy endure? Over-dramatic? Probably.

Yet, our kids are growing up in a post-9/11 world. Terror has become an industry — ” be very afraid,” we whimper because danger lurks waiting to obliterate everything we love. Either you’re with us or against us goes the argument, which ultimately shuts down education, discourse and quite possibly brain activity. If every decision you make flows out of fear — does civics even matter anymore? In a struggle, billed as one for our very survival can knowing how the electoral college works matter?

Yes, yes and yes I would answer. The relics of our history that so many would call static — the Constitution, the laws, the rights — the very messy, often compromised act of voting itself are organic, vibrant underpinnings of American society. So, now the question becomes how do you teach that without bias? Don’t misunderstand, bias free is not value free. There are ideologies involved in civics, but they shouldn’t be cloaked in Democratic or Republican guises.

Kids between 18 and 31 will be 1/3 of the electorate by the year 2015 — that means my kids and the others in elementary school now will have a tremendous impact on the future — they need to be ready. 56% of the population thinks that “separation of powers,” means that Democrats can do some things while Republicans can do others… ouch!! Thanks to the National Parent/Student Mock Election info page for some of the stats…..

So we teach the 3 branches, how they are elected, what they do — and we do it through repetition and laughter — OK, crazy skits that some of us get together to write and act… they say that kids need to hear and/or see something 5 times to understand it. We do a little song and dance, a few handouts, a few PSA’s and suddenly they are asking their parents to talk about the elections (hey, maybe they’ll get mom & dad to vote). The point is that we don’t need to talk about people, or parties to make the kids understand democracy.

They’ve practiced. They’ve made their democratic muscles stronger — so, when we put the ballot in front of them for the “who,” they already understand the “what,” and the “why.” And, isn’t that the goal?

Music to get patriotic to: July 4th with Keith Lockhart & the Boston Pops (do the sing-along, it’s fun!!); Beatles (Revolution); Bob Dylan (Times they are a-changing); Wynton Marsalis (Where Y’all At); Nina Simone (None of Us are Free); and Bruce Springsteen’s ever so earnest rendition We Shall Overcome, which while glorious doesn’t quite tingle your toes like Mahalia Jackson’s. Finally, if you are a little dark on our national prospects, yet are willing to be amused in your bitterness, check out Randy Newman (A Few Words in Defense of our Country) — I love him for his Swift-ian use of language, although I daresay he will offend a few.

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers…but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.” –> Erma Bombeck

Take care,
Aly

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