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Student Voices Heard In Election Process

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Project-Based Learning + Presidential Campaign = Recipe for Meaningful Civic Engagement

I'm feeling post-election relief and something else -- a surprising sense of hope. After months of advertising, campaigning, rhetoric and speeches, the 2012 presidential election is now history. President Obama is re-elected, the nation is returning to some sort of "normalcy," and everyone is trying to figure out what the vote results really mean.

"Is this a tax mandate?" some pundits ask. "What's the balance between concerns for the economy and concerns for the environment?" query the talking heads. "How do we handle entitlements and reduce the debt?" asks a reporter. "What about the social issues?" question the blogs. The list goes on and on, and the next few months of a lame-duck Congress will only add to the posturing.

Not to dismiss the significant issues facing our country, I am breathing a sigh of relief that once again we have successfully exercised our right to a free election. It's something I'm passionate about, and I never take the political process for granted.

For me, politics is more than a process that culminates every four years in a presidential election. I volunteered for my first presidential campaign before I could vote. I've always felt it was important to take responsibility for this democracy we are privileged to call our own.

This is where my sense of surprise enters; I have despaired that the very manner in which we conduct campaigns is turning youth off. Yet here's something that turned high school students around the country "on" to the democratic process: the #myparty12 project, where students engaged in the election and were invited to "care about politics and the role of the media" in that process.

Joe Urschel, from Eagle Tech Academy in Columbia City, Indiana, and Mike Kaechele, from Kent Innovation High in Grand Rapids, Michigan, joined forces over the summer to create #myparty12. The project spanned several weeks and involved more than 15 schools across the country.

Students participating in #myparty12 were a good representation of the national electorate. They came from rural and urban schools, some sharing similar backgrounds and political beliefs and others at the opposite end of the spectrum. But they all listened to each other's viewpoints and played fair -- something we wish we could say about the national parties and their candidates.

In this project, students were challenged to develop their own political parties and establish a set of common beliefs. They developed party platforms and determined ways to affect public policy. They created short campaign videos that detailed their party platforms. More than 7,500 New Tech Network students and teachers voted and the five finalists came together earlier this month for a network-wide debate held on YouTube using Google Hangout.

The debate was moderated by Andy Boian, a 20-year veteran public affairs consultant who worked on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. Students were asked to respond to questions on a variety of topics, including the economy, education and social issues.

Students had many and varied opinions regarding ways to improve the economy. Recommendations included lowering corporate tax rates, ending excessive government regulations, raising taxes and more.

Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia and current president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, asked questions on education. Wise currently co-chairs the Digital Learning Council that is hosting Digital Learning Day in February and chairs the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards which is dedicated to furthering Deeper Learning skills in education. Party spokespersons responded to his questions about funding in education. They took stands for increasing the use of technology in education and showed their passion for encouraging young people to exercise their right to vote.

Social issues elicited a broad range of responses. The party that received the most votes was entitled The Popular Party and was represented by James Hogg. Fellow teammates included Abbey Bentley, Kymberley Leggett and Victoria Perkins all students from Belleville New Tech in Michigan.

From our work with more than 100 public high schools in red and blue states, we understand that students develop critical thinking skills when they learn in real, relevant and engaging ways. This presidential election and the role the media plays presented a great teaching moment.

The #myparty12 project encouraged students to experience what active, engaged citizenship feels like, and served as terrific "practice" for them to become the kind of citizens who can successfully navigate college and career -- and even someday -- become President of the United States. And it gave me hope for the future of our electoral process.