Voting: How high school teachers get students to think about their civic duty

By Mallory Cramp-Waldinsperger

How high school educators get young people to think about voting

Recently, The Lindsay Advocate’s Mallory Cramp-Waldinsperger asked local high school teachers for their perspectives on how youth see the world, and what educators can do to get students to think about voting. This is what they had to say:

Is there anything unique about how up-and-coming voters see the world, and politics that you think readers should know?

Mark Robinson – Canadian and World Studies, LCVI

There’s a general sense of overwhelming complexity, and a feeling that individual action doesn’t amount to much against the powers that be. However, students do have strong feelings when they are engaged and have been introduced to current issues. Topics which inspire them include climate change and its consequences, and the growing awareness of gender identities and the acceptance of these differences. Students are quick to rally behind causes that try to redress injustices.

They will become passionate when they learn of corporate abuses, inequalities in the distribution of wealth, abuses of power; these kinds of things may reflect the teenage position in life (little real power, feeling marginalized or unappreciated) so they rally to these causes. For example, students do understand that climate change is a real thing, that it will affect their lives, and it is a problem that they would like to see effective solutions. They tend to agree that governments and corporations have left this problem untended too long, and the the sense of the injustice of profit over sustainability is strongly felt.

Mairi Bew – Canadian and World Studies, I.E. Weldon

Students are keenly aware of the many serious challenges facing our world; and, like adults, they have varying responses as to how society should move forward to overcome these challenges.  Some choose to ignore the situation, while the majority want to see some significant, positive changes.  Students get discouraged when they hear the name calling and negativity of political campaigns.  However, most believe that they can see through the rhetoric and sound bites to find the truth.

Darryl Bortolot – History and Law, LCVI

One could make the argument that they tend to see the world through a ‘digital’ or ‘social media’ lens. However, the same could be said for a larger (and growing) chunk of the general population. My perspective is that, in all honesty, youth are no different than ‘the rest of us.’ Often, adults seem to think that youth are politically apathetic. The reality is that they are no more involved or disengaged than the general population. They certainly are more engaged when it comes to issues of environmentalism or social justice than many adults. They also tend to be more open to social change — but I see this as a function of youth. They haven’t had an opportunity to become retrenched in their views, as are we are wont to do. How many one-time ‘radical’ socialists are now devoted fiscal or social conservatives? More than who would care to admit.

Marcie Goldenberg, Canadian and World Studies, LCVI

I would say that young people today are highly interested in diversity and social justice. There are more youth today who accept the fact that gender and sexuality are not binary. For many of them this is not even a question. I see them as very accepting of differences, in terms of race and gender and sexuality as well as abilities and interests. I believe most youth today also want to see innovations in ways we deal with and affect the climate crisis. Although they too feel it is hard to make the change themselves, they would fully support and get involved with bigger system wide changes and funding for new technologies as well as policies designed to lessen our environmental impact. 

What do you do to get young people to think about voting?

Mark Robinson – Canadian and World Studies, LCVI

A good place to start is to help them identify their own personal political values and realize that the politics of their parents may not be their politics. We examine the political spectrum as a model to explain where we stand regarding the principles of left and right political ideologies and discover where Canadian political parties fit into this model. Then we examine issues. Kids will be very involved once they really understand the background of an issue, especially if it offends their sense of justice and fair play. After that, we will try to get them to read the newspaper, watch the news, and engage in conversation about current events. The result, hopefully, is an engaged, knowledgeable student body. 

Mairi Bew – Canadian and World Studies, I.E. Weldon

Teaching in the Canadian and World Studies department means that each class in history, geography, civics, and law starts with a discussion about current events. This is a great way to get most students engaged in what is happening. All students take civics in Grade 10 which aims to help students understand and embrace their rights and responsibilities as active citizens. Thinking and learning about the power of the vote helps them recognize that they have a critical role to play in our democracy today, and in the future.

We also challenge students to think critically about the information being presented to them. With so many sources of news available to them, it is important that students can recognize bias, spin, perspective and intent. This allows them to come to their own informed, fact-based conclusion about politics and the voting process.

When an election campaign is in progress, we take part in the Student Vote program run through an organization called CIVIX. They provide ideas for lesson plans and how to plan a school-wide model election. I have done this with Weldon students more than half a dozen times, for all levels of government. In this coming federal election, students will vote a few days prior to the real election, after investigating the election platform of each local candidate and following the campaigns of the parties. In recent years, I have asked all local candidates to write a one-page message to the students. These are then posted together around the school and in classrooms so that all students can think about who they would like to see be their voice in Ottawa.   

Darryl Bortolot – History and Law, LCVI

Obviously, the Ontario curriculum puts an emphasis on civic engagement through the Grade 10 civics course. During an election year, there are numerous opportunities to get students engaged in the voting process through programs like There are problems with this though, since a 15-year old knows they’ve got at least three more years before they can cast their vote. As a law teacher, my focus tends to be on rights and responsibilities. As a society, for better or worse, we are rights-driven. If you can find issues that relate to that discussion, then students can often see the value of the vote. In recent years, we’ve seen governments invoke the ‘notwithstanding clause’ (s. 33 of the Charter) to push through a reorganization of Toronto City Hall, courts overturn the ‘assisted suicide’ clause of the Criminal Code of Canada and an intergovernmental squabble over pipelines in Western Canada, amongst others. My students all know that, in my class, “you do not have the right to an opinion — you do have a right to an informed opinion.” In studying and discussing these, students can see how their rights come into play and the value in informed decision making. They also begin to see the need to become involved if they want to defend their own particular positions or values, and that voting is an important tool in that defense. 

Marcie Goldenberg – Canadian and World Studies, LCVI
Often times it is hard for anyone to feel like they know enough about their political representative’s policies or perspectives, whether we are youth or adult. In our social studies and Canadian and World Studies classes we often try to help students learn how to find out more about an issue or a candidate. It is always great when there is an election on as we can pull current issues and candidates into class work. I always try to incorporate the hot topics from our communities and national or international news and help students develop their own opinions of the issues. I encourage my students to figure out where they stand on the topic and why, and to support their opinions with expert studies, as well as historical and current examples. What I love about teaching is helping students feel like they are beginning to understand the world around them and that they can influence it too.  

Greer Pedoe – Coding, Japanese, Careers and Civics, I.E. Weldon

In my Coding classes, I get students thinking about voting when we discuss how technology has changed drastically over the last short while, but the law hasn’t changed much. When we discuss privacy rights in a world with Facebook, and hate speech in a world with Twitter, the students get interested in how voting affects the law and thus their everyday lives.

In my Japanese classes, they often ask about international issues which leads to a discussion of how countries interact in a “big picture” context. They then see how a country’s elected leader affects the way that country treats others, for better and worse.

And finally, in my Career Studies classes, I spend some time talking about money and taxes. That gets them right into the topic of voting.

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