With elections occurring Nov. 8 across their country, dozens of fourth-graders in the Falcon area of El Paso County tackled their own heavily debated issue: Dogs or cats?
Catherine Watson, a fourth-grade teacher at Meridian Ranch Elementary School, started the day’s lessons discussing the process of popular and electoral votes. She showcased various political party symbols and established campaign practices.
“Why do you think the debates are so important,” said Watson, walking between clusters of desks, where 3-4 students, between 9 and 10 years old, gripped onto pencils, notebooks and clipboards.
A student suggested debates are opportunities for candidates to “tell people how they feel about stuff.” Another explained how the process encourages people to vote, and ensures they know more about who their next president might be.
During her three years at Meridian Ranch Elementary School, Watson has helped fourth-graders each November understand how elections work, and how they’re a contest of opinions, and how people argue positions to influence opinions.
She says the effort establishes a firm foundation of knowledge for more advanced lessons in middle and high school.
Last year, her class sent a letter to Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado’s 5th Congressional District. Lamborn represents residents in the Pikes Peak region, including El Paso County.
This year, Watson’s lessons started with a parent’s presentation.
During a PTA huddle, Rosie Suerdieck asked to support civics lessons. She studied political science and philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A spouse of a military officer, she wound up working on Capitol Hill for nearly four years, as a legislative assistant and constituency adviser. She wrote speeches and drafted laws.
“Government can be a difficult concept for kids, and a bit abstract with how it impacts their daily lives,” said Suerdieck, during her presentation Nov. 4 in the school’s gymnasium.
“I just want to help children understand that our system is a beautiful one,” she said. “Our founding fathers setup our government so the power never goes to one person; it always stays with the people.”
After illustrating how the federal government works, from its three branches to ensuring states’ rights, Suerdieck flipped through candidate portraits, as mixed reactions erupted. Nearly every child was familiar with at least one candidate.
“Politics is for the people — I’m only here to talk about how government works,” said Suerdieck. “Politics takes personal research.”
Watson says Suerdieck’s involvement was critical to helping students understand how politics connect to career options, and why it’s an important area of study.
“They already know about all these different people,” said Watson, discussing the unavoidable political advertisements in a swing state like Colorado. They’re well-known to show during television programs, and in YouTube playlists.
“We want them to know the process of campaigning and the whole presidential election. These are people trying to get your vote; they know you hold the power.”
“It’s now Nov. 8, and millions of voters are heading to polling stations to cast their votes,” said Watson, preparing the fourth-graders for a contested debate. “We will have to wait for the winner, or who got the most votes.”
“We’re going to simulate our own election,” she said. “We’re going to think about two animals, and consider which one is best. … These are two animals that people tend to have strong feelings about.”
She drew headings for “dogs” and “cats” on a whiteboard. As students mentioned positive aspects of each, she wrote down their ideas. Next, they gathered into groups to discuss their positions, and how to separate facts from opinions.
They debated the differences between dogs and cats. Considering companionship, students praised dogs for alerting people of dangers, and cats for being self-reliant and less demanding.
“Dogs can sense bad people and things, and save lives,” said fourth-grader Gabriella Eberhart, 10. Also in support of dogs, classmate Sadie Slezak, 9, added, “Dogs can be protective while cats just freak out.”
“If you have a negative about the other side, it needs to be backed up,” said Watson. “You have to be able to say, ‘What evidence do I have to support my claim?’”
As students tried to persuade opposing teams, conflicting opinions stirred reactions, as Watson ensured each voice had minimal interruptions. Students cited evidence concerning which animal is messier, or more easily startled or destructive.
“Do you see how it really does come down to opinions,” said Watson. “Some of you are saying, ‘but that’s a good thing,’ or ‘no, dogs don’t do that, or cats don’t do that.’ Maybe it’s not always fact. Do we see that it really comes down to opinions.”
Watson handed out flash cards for her classroom ballot box, instructing each student to write down their favorite animal, and then sign their card to certify, “this is my vote and this is what I think.”
“What would happen if nobody on your team votes,” said Watson. A student described how “it’d increase the chance of the other side winning.”
After counting votes on a table, Watson declared dogs the winner, as students speculated that some of their peers had covertly changed their minds.
“Whatever the choice of the popular vote, whether or not you’re excited about it, you have to move forward with it,” said Watson, as questions led to discussions of checks and balances, and how involved electorates keep politicians accountable.
“I’ve learned about how people vote,” said Sadie. “We’re the most powerful part of government, so I think it’s important that our voices are heard.”