During US presidential elections, Iowa hosts one of the earliest primaries, which means students there are exposed to candidates and issues early in the elections process. For the past three presidential elections, Orange City (Iowa) Christian 8th graders have participated in a projected called the Wall of Decision, which helps them to understand each candidate’s platform.
“Students break into groups of three or four to research one of the candidates' views on issues of importance,” said social studies teacher Randy Hilbelink. Students selected this year’s 11 topics, and “were able to select issues where the Christian worldview was definitely evident,” said Hilbelink. “Besides the obvious ‘Christian’ issues—abortion and same-sex marriage—8th graders chose topics where Christians could make a dynamic impact for change, including gun control, a balanced budget, and foreign policy.”
The nine groups (one per candidate) worked to accurately portray their candidate’s views on each issue and then displayed those positions on posters on the wall. In the week leading up to the school’s January 26 caucus/election, students in the 4th through 7th grade were able to come as classes and compare/contrast the nine candidates and their views on important issues in order to make an intelligent, informed decision. Parents were also invited to come to review, and learn from, the students’ research.
After Orange City Christian’s 4th-8th graders voted in their school’s election (won by Ben Carson, with Ted Cruz in second place), the school’s results were sent to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office and collated with the results of other school elections. Over 100,000 students participated in the Iowa Youth Straw poll, a statewide initiative to get young people involved in the election process. (Statewide, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won.)
The elections are far from over, and the students continue to follow the process and the candidates carefully. The wall is still up, and students continue to refer to it, especially around the presidential debates, to try to determine if candidates stick to their original positions. “As a social studies teacher, I am interested in having my students judge positions and comments as Christians, rather than Democrat or Republican,” said Hilbelink. “One of the other things we continue to do in class is to put up presidential candidate quotes anonymously and have students agree/disagree with each before revealing which candidate said them.”
“One of the most rewarding things about teaching this process was seeing students at the Iowa caucuses on February 1,” said Hilbelink, who saw both former students who are now eligible voters and current students who attended the caucuses with their parents.