By Judge Tom Jacobs and Natalie Jacobs, authors of Every Vote Matters
Although young people can’t vote until they become adults, they can make their voices heard on matters important to them. Teachers can introduce their students to a variety of resources that enable them to join and actively engage in the conversation. There is no minimum age or grade level when it comes to participating in our democracy.
For teachers who don’t regularly discuss current events, politics, and social justice issues, introducing a weekly “news hour” into the classroom could be a great start for inspiring early engagement in the democratic process. You could read and discuss articles from newspapers and magazines. This could be a time for teachers to learn alongside their students about various issues at the local, state, and national levels, especially during an election year. For topics students become passionate about, the class could explore ways to get involved with the issue and make a difference.
The following ideas provide ways students can use their voices and become engaged citizens.
Write a Letter
Start a Petition
Students can circulate a petition for student signatures in an attempt to change a school rule or policy. Anyone can create an online petition for a cause through platforms like Change.org. Discuss with students how to spread the word through social media, connect with supporters, and advocate their position.
Run for Office
Encourage students to run for class office or student council. They could also become an officer of a club or an organization or support a classmate’s campaign for office.
Join a Club
Encourage students to join clubs at school or organizations dedicated to causes they support. Even better, students can start a club at school for a cause that is not yet supported by a club on campus. A few examples of clubs that students may be interested in include political organizations like Young Democrats, Young Republicans, and the Green Party; organizations for gender and sexual orientation equality like Gay Straight Alliances and GLSEN chapters; climate change and environmental groups; organizations in support of students with disabilities like the Sparkle Effect; and career-oriented groups like the Explorer Program. For students passionate about social justice or criminal law, teen court and mock trial programs are good options.
Organize an Event
Students can help organize an event to support a cause, spread awareness, and/or advocate for change. National events that students may be interested in bringing to your school include World Health Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, No One Eats Alone Day, National Bullying Prevention Month, Earth Day, LGBT Day of Silence, and Banned Books Week. Students can also organize and/or participate in a peaceful demonstration.
Support a Campaign
Teachers and students can arrange to place a voter registration table at school through their local elections office. Get classmates to run it throughout the day. Students who are not yet eighteen may be able to participate in early registration. Help get out the youth vote, and have your school participate in the National Voter Registration Day event.
Students can also contact the campaign office of a candidate they support or look at the candidate’s website to find out how interested students can help with the campaign. Making phone calls, distributing literature about the candidate, and working events are all possibilities.
Attend a Meeting
Encourage students to attend school board and city council meetings, or even attend one as a class. Discuss the possibilities for meeting with local politicians and state legislators.
Discuss with students their passion and willingness to speak out about a cause. Speaking opportunities may include public events, presentations, rallies, and public forums. Educators can consider holding a classroom debate or student presentations while focusing on persuasive writing and speaking techniques.
Leverage the Power of Social Media
Most likely for any cause, social justice issue, or candidate, interested students can connect via social media. In addition, social media is a great tool for educating and informing people about a particular issue and gaining support. Brainstorm ways to use the various platforms with students.
Become a Leader, Advocate, and Mentor
Students who are active in any club, group, or organization working to advance a cause or create change are developing advocacy skills. These students can be role models for other students and inspire participation. Students can also participate in programs to educate younger students (as a mentor) regarding a number of concerns affecting today’s kids like bullying and cyberbullying, drugs, weapons, and gangs. Mentoring a fellow teen through a literacy program is another great way for some students to get involved.
Organizations your students may want to look into include:
- National Youth Rights Association, a national, youth-led organization dedicated to fighting for the civil rights and liberties of young people.
- Rock the Vote, the largest nonprofit and nonpartisan organization in the United States driving the youth vote to the polls.
- Global Youth Justice works to expand teen court and diversion programs as well as reduce the national voting age to sixteen.
- Change.org, an online petition platform.
- The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ kids.
- Student Press Law Center, an advocate for student First Amendment rights, for freedom of online speech, and for open government on campus.
- Newseum Institute, an organization whose mission is to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment through education, information, and entertainment.
Even if your students can’t vote yet, they can get involved! They can use their voices to bring about change. They can become advocates for a cause they believe in.
Thomas A. Jacobs, J.D., was an Arizona Assistant Attorney General from 1972–1985 where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for ten years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers, and judges.
Visit Judge Jacobs’s website Askthejudge.info for free interactive educational tools that provide current information regarding laws, court decisions, and national news affecting teens. It’s the only site of its kind to provide legal questions and answers for teens and parents with the unique ability to interact with Judge Jacobs and other teens.
A former criminal defense attorney, Natalie Jacobs works with her father Judge Tom on the teen rights website AsktheJudge.info helping teenagers and their parents become better informed about youth rights and the laws affecting minors. She has volunteered with the Arizona Innocence Project, which investigates claims of innocence and works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted. Natalie lives in Arizona.
Tom and Natalie are coauthors of Every Vote Matters. Tom is also the author of What Are My Rights?, They Broke the Law—You Be the Judge, and Teen Cyberbullying Investigated.
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