Windham High School seniors are going deep to study issues rather than relying on sound bites.

Kelly-Anne Rush, a social studies teacher at Windham High School, recently had a letter that made her very happy.

“I heard from a former student who is away at college,” Rush said. “She was filling out an absentee ballot, and she said it made her think of me.”

As the instructor for a course called Personal Finance and Citizenship at the high school – required for seniors – Rush teaches students to become responsible and informed adults through courses in budgeting, finance and civic engagement.

This time of year, she’s also tasked with helping teenagers wade through massive amounts of information (and misinformation) around the election. And with the contentious nature of this year’s presidential vote, Rush said, students are talking about the election more than ever.

“I’ve heard kids talking about why they support a candidate or not,” Rush said. “They’re definitely having more conversations about it than in years past.”

Despite the controversial rhetoric around the election, she said, it’s also “an exciting year to be a civics teacher, as the students are hearing a lot about the election and are naturally curious about the issues and what’s going on around them.”

Rush has taught social studies for 13 years, or three presidential election cycles.

Tuesday morning, Rush welcomed her fourth-period class of seniors. After a half-hour lecture, the teens formed a circle for a student-led discussion on Maine’s six ballot questions.

One of their assignments in preparing for the discussion was to conduct research online and learn more about the pros and cons of each question. They were also supposed to ask people in their lives – parents, teachers, bosses, peers – for their opinions on the ballot questions.

Several students said they felt more informed about the referendum questions than some of the adults in their lives. Of 16 students, four are eligible to vote.

Will Wheaton said because he can vote this year, he feels he’s paying more attention to the issues. He wants to be politically well-educated so he can be an involved citizen and make decisions based on what’s best for the population as a whole, and not just him personally.

Stephanie Nichols and David Young, both 17, can’t vote in the election, but said the class is still informative, and is creating excitement for when they can exercise that right.

In the last presidential election (when they were in eighth grade), Young said he was apathetic about the process. This year is different, he said, because “we’re on the cusp of adulthood,” and the impact of these decisions feels more immediate.

The students said the election, especially the presidential candidates, is a popular conversation topic among students in and outside the civics classroom.

Because the election is so contentious, Rush said, a lot of students enter her classroom with blanket statements about the candidates and issues. They talk in sound bites, she said, they’ve maybe heard on the news, from members of their family or through Facebook.

Rush said her goal as a civics teacher is to help students figure out where they can find true and unbiased information.

As a teacher, she said, “my role is not to convince people who or what they should vote for. I want to help them navigate a decision they can be happy with,” a decision based on logic and evidence, she said.

They study their sources to determine their validity. One of the most important things to do, she said, is to follow the money.

“Students are tasked with figuring out who is paying,” she said. “They have to figure out the role of special interest groups, and what is their hidden agenda.”

After the election next week, Rush said, the students will debrief on the results, particularly the ballot issues. They’ll look at a map of the electoral college, and they’ll talk about different districts – whether they voted liberal or conservative – and how different factors may have influenced their vote.

Wheaton said the class has helped him to make informed decisions this election, and to sort through the barrage of information he sees posted on news sites and Facebook.

“What’s most important,” he has found, “is to take everything with a grain of salt until you do your own research.”

For Nichols, the class has helped her form opinions on the six ballot referendum questions.

Wheaton said as teenagers still in high school, “people think we don’t know anything. But we are educated, and we do have opinions that are valid. I think we’ve learned to articulate those (opinions).”

A closer look:

Polling locations and times for the nine Lakes Region towns are as follows:

Casco

Casco Community Center, 940 Meadow Road

8 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Gray

Newbegin Community Center at 22 Main St.

6 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Naples

Naples Town Office Gym, 15 Village Green Lane

8 a.m. – 8 p.m.

New Gloucester

New Gloucester Fire Station, 611 Lewiston Road

6 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Raymond

Jordan Small Middle School, 423 Webbs Mill Road

7 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Sebago

Sebago Town Office, 406 Bridgton Road

7 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Standish

Sebago Lake Room, Standish Town Hall, 175 Northeast Road

6 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Windham

Main gym, Windham High School, 406 Gray Road

7 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Will Wheaton, center, discusses a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana with fellow Windham High School students Celine Baker, left, Stephanie Nichols and civics teacher Kelly-Anne Rush, in back.


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