Election fascinates students
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000
LECANTO -- For most people, the presidential election events of the past week have been a fascinating opportunity to witness history in the making. For those who teach history, the events have been a living lesson and have also been a bit of a pain.
Bill Hartley, social studies department chairman at Lecanto High School, has been avoiding visiting the school's main office lately. Every time he wanders too far from his classroom, he runs into people who have questions about what's happening with the election. He hasn't had time to grade all his papers and he hasn't gotten much sleep.
Still, it is hard to complain about events that have ignited animated student discussions about the minute details of presidential elections usually relegated to footnotes in history books.
"This is the most powerful civics lesson and history lesson that I've ever seen," Hartley said.
Across Citrus County, students and school staff members have been transfixed by the national events. With the sound of CNN humming in the background, some teachers have been using the opportunity to fashion lessons that demonstrate points of law and intricacies of the election process that have been illustrated in the here and now by daily newspaper headlines.
Citrus High principal Gary Foltz said he thinks people of all ages have learned a valuable lesson during this crisis about how a single vote does count. And he has heard students talking about how their own parents now realize that not voting in the race was a big mistake.
Meanwhile, teachers are anxiously using the events in their classes.
"My lesson plan is a shambles," Hartley said, noting that he has switched around what portions of his government classes he's teaching in order to discuss the crisis. Whereas last week his students read from books and other media about the Electoral College, this week they're experiencing it through discussions and news broadcasts.
The events have also driven home many of the points made about past close elections, which, until this week, felt like far-off history.
"We'll start talking about something, but we don't get very far" because students will raise new questions about what might happen with the election, Hartley said. "You just have to be flexible."
"This is history in the making and everyone is intensely curious," said Joann Andrews, Citrus High School social studies teacher.
In her classroom and other rooms at her school, the television news programs have been on for a portion of every period. When the students aren't watching the latest developments, they're asking about them. When the students aren't asking, the staff members are.
It's heaven for a history teacher.
"It's very exciting in the classroom to hear kids come in and say, "It's interesting,' " Andrews said. "Usually they hate government. It's complicated. It's theoretical. . . . I've just been amazed, not just at the kids, but everyone is interested and asking questions."
They're questioning the logic of the Electoral College. They're asking why the popular vote doesn't decide the election. They're concerned about when the final outcome will be announced.
"It's just wonderful for me. When I get to that unit, we'll be halfway done with it," Andrews said.
Hartley agreed about the impact the breaking news is having on students.
"I've got kids talking in class who never talk and kids paying attention who don't normally pay attention," Hartley said. "They're definitely interested and some of them are concerned."
Neither Hartley nor Andrews thought that the students understood just how critical Florida's role has been and where it will land in the history books.
"I've tried to give them some sense of how historical this is," Hartley said. "I'm trying to get them to understand that they have the responsibility for understanding this because it won't be too long before their children will be asking them to tell them about the election of 2000. "It's going to rewrite the history books in some way."
Then some students have figured out that Florida is really in the limelight.
"It feels to them like this is our 15 minutes of fame," Andrews said. "But I've had to tell them, we're looking like real idiots around the world."
For Hartley, the presidential election process has special meaning. In the past, he took students to a Bill Clinton rally and to Clinton's second inauguration. In January, he has 14 students signed up to go to the inauguration of the next president, whomever that might be.
Unfortunately, he said, not all the students fascinated by the election events signed up. "But those who did, you know they're going to get the benefit," he said.
Still, there are some things about the whole experience that are worth forgetting. "I don't want toever hear again soon or throughout my natural life the phrase "too close to call,' " Hartley said.
And Andrews said she hopes that the media, which jumped the gun reporting Gore, then Bush the winner in Florida long before the real information could be available, will also take a lesson from the experience.
"What were you people thinking?" she asked a reporter. "Don't you know it's not over until the fat lady sings?"
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