Middle School Election Simulation
and Ian Walters
On October 7, 2016, with the presidential election just weeks away, our entire grade 6 to 8 middle school community embarked on its own election: an immersive, gamified simulation to “elect” a fictitious new head of school. In a single school day, our students would experience not only a version of our electoral system but the emotions of millions of disenfranchised voters who fight to vote each year.
This simulation was the first of its kind in our school. Nearly a year in the making, students were told only that they would be campaigning and voting for a new head — unaware that the simulation’s real purpose was to have them experience firsthand the systemic inequities plaguing our national democracy. With political fervor seeping into students’ lives, we sought to push our community to examine the structural injustices facing millions of Americans. What better way to provoke reflection than to have students face these very challenges themselves in a safe learning space?
Who Are We?
Nestled within the Oakland Hills of the Bay Area, Head-Royce School (HRS) is a coeducational K-12 school that strives at all levels for student-centered learning. HRS’s mission of diversity, scholarship, and citizenship frames our efforts to infuse these ideals into daily practice. But while our community is diverse (52 percent of our students identify as people of color, and a quarter of the population benefits from some amount of tuition assistance), many of our middle school students remain uninformed about the barriers preventing millions of Americans from fully and effectively participating in the electoral process.
The HRS curriculum, as reflected in its mission statement, emphasizes the practices of 21st century teaching and learning, encouraging students to “participate in experiential learning, take risks, view the world through multiple lenses, utilize innovative tools, and demonstrate proficiencies through a range of assessments that include real-world problems and performances.” Taking into account the composition of our community, the life experiences of our students, and the guiding principles behind our academic program, this simulation functioned as a vehicle for examining our country’s political process together as a critical, inquiry-based community.
Designing for an Emotional Response
Meeting weekly over six months, our team of four middle school teachers from a range of disciplines developed learning objectives, built assessment tools, and designed a variety of activities to maximize student engagement throughout the day. Having previously implemented small-scale simulations, we knew that success depended on achieving an emotional response in each student. In this way, students could quickly make a personal connection to the content, regardless of their prior content knowledge.
To elicit this emotional response, we began by creating three compelling “candidates” for head of school, each touting a platform appealing loosely to a different set of students. After hearing speeches from each candidate, students self-sorted into “campaign teams” on the basis of their perceptions of the candidate and his or her message. As they campaigned for their candidate, students increasingly invested their own feelings of excitement and achievement into the promotion of their candidate’s platform — and, by the same token, became emotionally vulnerable to anything impeding their candidate’s success.
To further strengthen this emotional link, our “candidates” focused on issues of paramount importance to most middle schoolers. In our simulation, things such as homework, lunch lines, school start times, social events, and athletics became the hot-button issues. By locating these issues in the middle school arena rather than the national stage, we were able to keep the mechanisms of our election system present and very local, thus avoiding the distraction of the then-unfolding national contest.
We understood that the generally competitive energy of middle school students and their tendency to view the world through the lens of fairness made them ideally suited to a gamified campaigning process. Using Google Forms, we leveraged this energy by building a live-updating system of “Campaign Buzz Points,” which allowed campaigns to “purchase” faculty delegates whose support translated into votes for the purchasing campaign. And as these same competitive attributes manifest themselves in the general population of voters — particularly during the presidential election — we modeled our candidates’ personas loosely on the politicians and issues that were prominent in the 2016 campaign.
With so many pieces in play, much of the day’s success depended on both careful scheduling and timing and on clearly defining the roles of faculty, students, and parent volunteers. The day was split into three segments: Campaigning, Voting, and Reflection.
First, students experienced the campaign process and some of the inequities created by campaign finance. Arriving in their mixed-grade classrooms, they chose one of the three campaigns to work for and then spent 90 minutes creating and posting campaign materials (print and digital) throughout the middle school. To help students see how the quality of campaign materials could affect voter support, each piece they created was scored by a teacher on a simple 0-1-2-3 basis. These scores were tallied collectively on the “Buzz-O-Meter,” a digital bar graph projected in each classroom so that students could see how much “buzz” their candidate was generating in real time. When a candidate gained enough “buzz points,” students (invariably) ran to the delegate office to exchange them for faculty delegates (and the votes they commanded). These were tacked on after the final vote to show students the power campaigns can wield in elections.
Each of the three campaigns received blatantly different amounts of markers, colored paper, and tape with which to create campaign materials, as well as campaign-specific snacks of varying attractiveness (celery sticks, goldfish crackers, or ice cream). These inequalities deepened the emotional rifts between the campaigns and fostered a real sense of injustice, invoking both inferiority and superiority complexes among the students. During this phase, two distraught sixth graders reflected, “We felt like we had nothing to work with ... depending on who you chose to work for, it was like you got treated differently for no reason.” We witnessed both sincere anger from students who received less and felt that the system was “rigged” and a lack of empathy from those who had joined wealthier campaigns.
Campaigning concluded just before lunch, and students returned to their assigned rooms for voting instructions — a “voting location” slip they received from their supervising teacher. Before allowing students time for a gallery walk of all campaign materials, we urged them to put aside their campaign identities for the moment and to explore the work of their peers as concerned citizens.
Voting: Voter ID, Citizenship Tests, Availability of Voting Centers
The next part of the simulation highlighted the systemic disenfranchisement of various demographic groups within the voting process. From a hat, students drew one of five designated voting locations — three in the Middle School building and two on the field (a five- to seven-minute uphill walk). To vote, students presented their voting location slip at the corresponding voting location.
By design, voter experience varied wildly by location. Roughly half of the students voted in our main building where they waited in short, smooth-running lines and quickly received an “I Voted” sticker, which earned them a special lunch treat (ice cream). Students unable to vote for any reason did not receive this sticker and were barred from the lunch snack. Additionally, the lunch treats were limited in quantity and thus largely unavailable to students forced to wait in longer lines.
The remaining students were assigned one of two locations on the field. The first required students to present their student ID (in addition to their voting location slip) in order to vote. Students rarely carry their IDs on our campus, but, two weeks earlier, they had been told to bring their ID to school on this day. Of course, many students forgot their IDs and tried to run back to their lockers to fetch them. If they did not make it back in time, they were unable to vote.
The second location on the field required students to pass an extremely challenging test on the Head-Royce Student Handbook. Passing students could vote, but were coldly turned away if they could not pass. Lines were longest here, and the poll closed with many students still waiting. All disenfranchised voters recorded their failure on a chart, allowing us to later measure (and demonstrate) the impact of these challenges.
The results of these built-in inequalities were palpable. After working hard all morning for their candidate, students were visibly angry when denied the chance to vote. Some even visited different locations in the hope of convincing a volunteer to let them vote there instead. Many waited for nearly an hour in line, only to be arbitrarily denied a ballot, a tasty snack, and the pride of helping to elect their next head of school.
Lesson and Reflection
The day’s final segment comprised a two-part reflection session linking the simulation to the wider national experience. Knowing the attention span of middle schoolers, our team was concerned about student engagement late in the day. But rather than exhaustion or apathy, the final hours of the simulation saw a surge of energy from students eager to process their own feelings.
In the welcoming air-conditioning of the auditorium, all students watched two short videos on voter ID laws and campaign finance reform. Next, they filled out anonymous surveys about their experiences thus far. The surveys were collected and redistributed to all students before a stand-up/sit-down call-and-response activity revealing the widespread anger, frustration, and feelings of unfairness across all grade levels. Students yelled passionately about the pitfalls in their own day, immediately generating ideas for fairer systems. After this, they returned to their campaigning rooms for a small group debrief.
In every room, we witnessed heated, informed argument between 11- to 14-year-olds about the effects of money on politics, voting rights, and the systematic disenfranchisement of marginalized communities, especially those of color. Usually hyper-attuned to teacher presence, students hardly noticed us enter or exit their rooms. To our team, it seemed that the Middle School had reached a collective cognitive and emotional awareness of the deleterious effects of our current political system made visible in the discomfort, anger, and sadness of their friends. Even in sweltering late-afternoon classrooms, they clamored to speak out against the injustices of political interests — because they had just felt and experienced those injustices themselves!
Finally, students crafted private written reflections using the prompt “Democracy works when …,” before sharing with their group. Later, we formed these pages into the shape of a long tree stretching the length of our central hallway. In the hundreds of responses, we saw a strong current of activism in our students’ perspectives, with sentiments like, “Democracy works when … everyone has a chance to vote,” “... when voting is fair!” and “... when some campaigns don’t have more things than others for no reason.” It was also surprisingly difficult for us to detect the grade level of the responding student, as all students seemed to feel the same despite their age. The kids were still chattering when the time came to leave, and this continued at home, as we later learned from a flood of parent emails and conversations. One such email read:
I was impressed by how much thought went into making the day a “real” experience — one which made the students listen, think, feel, and communicate. I liked how they were made to take responsibility for their choices. The planned “problems” also made them really stop and think.
This final outpouring of emotion highlighted the intensity of feeling that binds us as a community and, when these feelings are leveraged appropriately, how closely they tie us to our national experience.
In 2015 the Center for Curriculum Redesign identified four overarching elements of a 21st century education:
● Knowledge (what we know)
● Skills (how we use what we know)
● Meta-learning (how we reflect and adapt)
● Character (how we behave and engage in the world)
It is downright hard for any school community to achieve these elements for its students. This simulation attempted to do so by leveraging emotion and empathy to unite our student body in the pursuit of material pertaining directly to our school mission and to the state of our country. The timing also turned out to be propitious as it provided students with a context and an informed language through which to process the waves of emotion that would engulf them (and us) just two weeks later.
Three years from now, before the next election, we plan to repeat this simulation with new students. Our observations from this year’s simulation suggest that the latter portion of the day will provide more opportunities for small-group rather than large-group reflection. We are considering building in a “‘pitch your candidate” segment, where better-informed campaigns can debate and attempt to sway competitors to support their team early in the day.
We also reflected that certain conditions need to be in place for a simulation like this to succeed in other schools. For instance, we benefited from supportive leadership, a very close and trusting collaborative team, and lots of faculty and parent support, all of which proved critically important to success.
Having carefully documented the process of creating and implementing the simulation this year, we have “banked” the enormous amount of work that creating this inaugural simulation required. We now have a workable, reusable simulation template that can challenge the HRS community, further its mission, and shake our students out of the normal rhythms of school for the sake of something bigger. The simulation’s ultimate goal is to create engaged citizens who are aware of both the importance of the democratic process and the systemic inequalities that exist in the way this process currently plays out in the United States.
Together, we had the privilege of helping students process some of the most far-reaching, entrenched, and sobering aspects of the political world in which they will soon be participating. We reflect with pride that some of our current eighth graders will be voting in the next election.