January 28, 2021

Embracing the Political Moment

The 2020 presidential election saw record participation, with two-thirds of the eligible population voting, the highest turnout since 1900. Although most Oakwood students may be too young to vote, this hasn’t limited their deep engagements with politics, government, and the inner-workings of elections. With Oakwood being in an online-learning mode this past year, teachers have adapted their courses to enable the kind of deep inquiries into contemporary political events that students are accustomed to.

Teddy Varno, chair of the social studies department at the secondary school, teaches an elective for the 11th and 12th grades called Campaigns and Elections. He began the class in 2015 as an Immersion course centered around a simulation of the 2016 presidential election. Students took a field trip to Washington DC, where they met with journalists, interviewed the director of a Super PAC, and spoke with the chair of the Federal Election Commission. “It was pretty fantastic. It was one of the greatest experiences I think I’ve ever had as a teacher,”

Another crucial component of the class is direct civic engagement. 21 Oakwood students served as poll workers in the recent election. This experience, coupled with learning in the virtual classroom, covered major election subjects such as gerrymandering and the electoral college, but also “a different slew of things,” says Teddy, “like provisional balloting, and issues that are really granular, small things that you wouldn’t experience unless you actually did this.”

Student poll workers, November 3, 2020

Finally, students created a voting guide to the various ballot initiatives, focusing on some of the more complicated election issues that are often overlooked in national and even local political coverage. In Varno’s words, ballot initiatives provide a different perspective than “the kind of partisan politics where opinions are pretty fixed and don’t change very often into a realm where you really have to do your own research and argue with each other and talk to each other about it,” he explains.

One of the students in the class, Teva ‘21, shared Teddy’s enthusiasm for remote learning, explaining how classmates used a video platform called Flipgrid to create videos about the propositions and “send our thoughts on how to vote on the propositions to family and friends. So that’s something we probably couldn’t have done.”

Lola ‘21, another student who, along with Teva, founded LA Teen Get Out the Vote in 2018, a grassroots organization through which students can volunteer for presidential as well as local candidates, explained that they were able to “stir up the pot in a way that I don’t think we had tried or been able to do before in a simulation, which is basically run a third party.”

In the upcoming semesters, Teddy plans to offer two new courses: one on civil rights and civil liberties that looks at constitutional law and the judiciary; and a new course ‘tentatively called Checks and Balances, which would look at the executive and the legislative branch in a really kind of detailed way for an entire semester.”

The class has lived up to all my expectations and has been the perfect balance of simulations and hands-on experiments and lessons…

Teva '21

High schoolers are not the only students at Oakwood exploring the complex system of the US government. Nechelle Wong-Littman, department chair for the Humanities, leads the eighth grade Model Senate. This program begins with researching current events, background on the Constitution, branches of government, and lively games about checks and balances. Students then write their own bills addressing contemporary issues, filming PSAs in support of it, and presenting the bill in a mock Senate hearing. All students in eighth grade play the role of actual senators, researching their voting record, constituencies, and history, and bring those factors into consideration when responding to the bill.

“The bills are debated. They’re amended, suggestions are made in order to make them pass, and then it’s finally put up to a vote,” explained Nechelle. “So the research, the writing skills, and the persuasiveness of the committee ultimately decide whether the bill actually becomes a law.”

Dash ‘25, was able to build on skills learned in his Introduction to Film class and describes crafting a PSA supporting his bill on police brutality. “I was able to use my editing skills to kind of voice my concerns for police brutality in this project,”

“Everything that we’re doing so far in Humanities is extremely relevant to what’s going on right now in our country,” said Harper ‘25, whose bill was about the expansion of the Supreme Court, and who was assigned Dianne Feinstein as her senator. “I got to express my opinion from her point of view,” she said.

Everything that we’re doing so far in Humanities is extremely relevant to what’s going on right now in our country

Harper ‘25

At both the eighth grade and high school levels, Oakwood faculty and students were able to adapt to the challenges posed by online classes, taking full advantage of the unique possibilities created in this new learning environment.

“You get to do so many things that you don’t really think you’d be able to do, especially in online learning, like debating, voting on bills, which I never expected to do,” said Harper. She was also able to practice a new skill, with Model Senate being the first time she debated in a public setting. According to Wong-Littman’s, healthy competition worked well, even over Zoom.

The Model Senate transferred effectively to remote learning in a number of other ways. A variety of digital platforms were used that sparked student collaboration including Padlet, a digital bulletin board; Edmodo, social media for school projects; and of course Google Docs.

“It went so fabulously because I think there was an element of not treating it like a regular classroom,” Teddy said, referring to a 1914 diplomatic simulation he taught in last spring’s modern history class. “And so I think if you design the right kinds of activities in this mode, so it doesn’t just feel like a normal class but it feels like you’re participating in a different way, I think there are actually like potentialities in it that are better than the regular classroom.”