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School Kids Learn about Elections

While eighteen-year-olds are getting ready to vote for the first time in this year's U.S. Presidential election, the generation behind them is getting some early lessons in election-year politics and the democratic process. VOA's Nancy Beardsley has more on efforts to teach grade school children about how America's electoral system works:

Eleven-year-old Olivia Angel didn't know much about Ralph Nader until she started sixth grade at Timber Lane Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia. But now that she's learned more about the independent Presidential candidate, she's decided she likes him:

"He has a lot of great ideas, like he wants to help the environment, and he wants to help the homeless, and people who don't have health care. And that's really great."

Olivia and her fellow students have been studying the issues and the electoral process at Timber Lane this year, and they're making up their own minds about who would be a good President and why. Sharaff Al-Mahdi offers this view:

"A good President would be a very serious one and one that make very good choices, like Bush."

Alec Boyer has entered the Presidential Election art and essay contest, sponsored by the school's Parent Teacher Association:

"My poster was about choice, and I made a ballot with Kerry and Bush on it. I checked off Kerry, and I drew a little picture of Kerry on the left. My family is a big Democratic family, so I'm following in their footsteps."

Whether they're upholding a family tradition or finding a candidate of their own, sixth graders at Timber Lane are not only getting a chance to learn more about politics, but put their views into action, writing essays and making posters on subjects like the meaning of choice or freedom. Keith Coelho is taking part in the school's mock national election:

"Another kid and I are going to write speeches and these other two (kids) are going to give them . Our class is Kerry and there are two other classes--one has Nader and the other has Bush."

Sixth grade teacher Chris DeRosa hopes that by learning more about how campaigns and elections work, Timber Lane students will get interested in politics at an early age:

"Hopefully this group of kids, because we've spent so much time with the election and studying the candidates and the process, when they reach the voting age of 18 they will register and vote. Because I know the younger voters, 18 to 25 or 35 have a very small turnout at the elections."

The Sleeping Bear Press is also trying to get young people more excited about how a democracy works. The publisher is sponsoring a nationwide contest for schools to come up with the best ideas for community volunteer programs. The contest coincides with the publication of a new book called D is for Democracy. Author Elissa Grodin uses each letter of the alphabet to explain a democratic principle, with pages like "A is for Amendment" "E is for Elections," and "Q is for Questions:"

"The subtitle of the book is 'A Citizen's Alphabet,' and I think we really mostly wanted to convey the importance of being a good citizen. It's certainly very informational. But the heart of it really is this idea of being an active participant in this system we have. It's kind of a call to action for kids."

Filled with historical anecdotes and light- hearted illustrations, the book aims to entertain as well as inform:

"Civics and history can be really dry when you're a kid, because it's very conceptual and abstract, and sometimes hard to make an emotional connection with. So I was thinking of ways to make each thing come as alive as I could."

At Timber Lane Elementary School, Jon La Vigne has been getting involved in the election year excitement, entering the school's essay with his thoughts on "What Makes A Good President:"

"A good President should always have leadership skills as a characteristic. A President needs to have experience being involved in Congress or being Governor or even a Senator."

Jon says he's learned things that surprised him this year. He didn't know that the outcome of the Presidential race is determined not by popular, but by electoral votes, based on the winner of the election in each American state. Other students were surprised to discover there were independent candidates running in the election. Still others like Dominique Rivas, Alisha Fuller and Cristian Garcia have learned broader lessons about the meaning of freedom and democracy:

DR: "We learned that any citizen can vote, can run for President, even a female.

AF: I learned that having an opportunity means freedom, and that just because you see something you don't have to choose it just because you want to get it over with. You have to think about it."

CG: I didn't really understand democracy, but now I know more and I like it, because in some places they assign someone within families or religions (as a leader) and in America we get to choose someone or someone else."

The students at Timber Lane Elementary School come from a wide range of countries and ethnic backgrounds. Teacher Chris DeRosa believes that's given them a special appreciation for what they're learning:

"Some of their families are immigrant families, so many of their parents are not citizens and so cannot vote now. But these students will be able to vote in a few years. So I think when they reflect back on their family's experiences in their home countries they'll realize some of the differences in the way government works."

And the students are also getting an early lesson in how you can get hooked on politics. Alec Boyer says he talks about the election every day now, starting first thing in the morning, when his dad drives him to school.