It may seem logical to have students cast their own ballots for president when the nation chooses a new leader, but the fact remains that those votes will never truly count. In lieu of those "mock" elections, some schools have students vote on an issue that has real implications. Allowing students to choose a representative symbol -- a school mascot that will encourage, inspire, and sometimes entertain them for years to come -- can be even more powerful. Included: Eight simple lessons that students encounter through the election process.
| Principal Jeff Melendez swears in
the newly-appointed "Waverly Eagle."
Last fall, as the nation was poised to choose a new president, Dr. Jeff Melendez assumed a new role as principal of Waverly School in Eastchester, New York. He quickly discovered that no one could recall any recent history of a school mascot and immediately saw that a connection could be made between the selection of a mascot and the democratic election process.
"I have a small committee that I meet with to discuss building issues," explained Melendez. "We discussed potential mascot candidates and had the teachers narrow it down to three possible ones. Since this was all happening in the midst of our presidential election, we decided to have students take part and choose the mascot that would represent their school, as we adults chose the president that would represent our country."It was a close race, but the "Waverly Eaglet" snatched the title from the would-be "Waverly Wizard" by one vote. During the inaugural assembly, the mascot swore an oath to uphold school traditions and attend every assembly.
"While taking this oath -- which was very serious, except when I asked if he would always be on his best behavior and the Waverly Eaglet shook his head no -- he placed his wing on our yearbook," Melendez reported. "We tried to take as many elements from the actual inauguration as possible, making it come to life for the kids."
The mascot has no well-defined term of office, but the eaglet probably shouldn't get too comfortable in its nest. Waverly is a K-1 school, so it will have an entirely new crop of potential voters in just two years. After the "swearing-in" assembly, a first grader joined the new mascot in an inaugural dance to Etta James' "At Last," the song performed by Beyonc for the Obamas' first spin as president and first lady.
"I don't think the kids got that reference, but the adults seemed to appreciate our attention to detail," said Melendez. "Democracy and politics are often difficult concepts for adults to grasp. Our five- and six-year-olds had no problem."
The national election also prompted Hudson Maxim School to choose a mascot. According to Principal Tracey Hensz, in her five years as principal the Hopatcong, New Jersey, school hadn't had a mascot, and the staff wanted to give the school's kindergarten and first grade students firsthand experience with the election process at a basic level.
"We read literature books to the children about the voting process, and we actually had all of our students register to vote," recalled Hensz. "From the beginning, they knew we were voting on Election Day, not for president but for our school mascot."
Each class brainstormed to create a list of animals that might make excellent mascots for the school. They voted individually and submitted the name of a single candidate to Hensz, who examined all of the class choices and chose two to compete for the position: the "Hudson Maxim Eagle" and the "Hudson Maxim Busy Bee.""The teachers then conducted science lessons about both animals in order for students to learn about each of them," Hensz explained. "We had two teachers pretend to be the animals and present themselves over the morning announcements, giving facts about themselves and why they should be our new school mascot. We felt that it was very important for us to focus on academics throughout this process."
On Election Day, every student voter signed in, just like adults who go to the polls. The students entered a voting booth and cast a ballot. The polling was held in the school gym. Patriotic music played in the background and decorations filled the room. While the students took center stage, Hensz, the teachers, and even the mailman, also cast a vote for the school's new mascot.
Selected student volunteers don
a costume and become the
"Pine Bush Eastern Coyote" for
Pine Bush Elementary events.
As in Eastchester, the symbolic "first fowl" of the United States again soared to victory. Now that the Hudson Maxim Eagle rules the roost, the students (and faculty) can't seem to get enough of showing their school spirit. They bring in all sorts of "eagle" items to share. The superintendent of schools donated a large picture of an eagle with the inspirational motto "Dare to Soar," and it hangs outside Hensz's office. A teacher contributed an eagle puppet and another shared a statue. Students send in cards, posters, and more. Although the eagle has no "official" term limit, the success of this election leads Hensz to believe that, like the nation's leader, it too may face reelection in four years.
"The students and teachers loved it. The entire process helped our very young students understand the presidential election the best they could," she observed. "I feel it is important for our students to have a say in the mascot because it gives them ownership. They are proud to say that they are Hudson Maxim Eagles, and they are ready to soar above the rest."
Organized by second grade teacher Laurie Haecker and library media specialist Kim Harmon, last November's election was actually the school's second. The winner of the 2004 election was the Karner blue butterfly, one of the most recognized creatures of the Albany Pine Bush and an endangered species. The mascot election followed each aspect of the general election, from a student assembly, to the convention, a primary, and main election. While schools often hold mock elections that coincide with national ones, the election of an actual representative for the school makes the activity more significant for the students because the outcome is "real" for them, believes Principal Christopher Sanita.
The coyote reigns supreme at
"What struck me most was the enthusiasm exhibited by the students and the fact that they were encouraged to make this a positive campaign as they were preparing campaign posters in support of their candidates," he shared. "They were advised in advance that they could not engage in any negative campaigning when creating election posters for their candidate of choice."
Teachers read children's books about voting to prepare the kids for the upcoming election. PTA members assisted by helping the young voters on the primary and main election days. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve and the New York State Department of Conservation provided materials, including images of the four primary election winners that were used to create a large election banner for the main lobby. In the end, the race came down to candidates from four parties: birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and insects of the Pine Bush Preserve. Of the dragonfly, eastern coyote, red-tailed hawk, and spotted turtle, the students elected the "Pine Bush Eastern Coyote."The school plans to continue to hold mascot elections during the presidential elections every four years. Organizers hope that the project will inspire the students to become involved in their school and classroom voting activities, so that they will always want to take part in the political process.
"This is a wonderful community-building activity within a school," said Sanita. "It brings everyone together in a positive way to campaign for the candidates of their choice and to begin to exercise their right to vote, a right inherent in any democratic society."