west rowan middle-political caucuses

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Frank DeLoache
Salisbury Post
Dakota Winstead was hunched over a desk in the library at West Rowan Middle School, filling out papers, but he didn’t have to say a word to make his pitch. Taped to his back was a piece of pink paper proclaiming:
“Guess what? You need to vote for Mitt Romney.”
Quinton Phifer walked past Winstead holding up a sign urging people to vote for U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton. At another table nearby, another West Rowan student waved a poster for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
Madison Moore was standing in front of the Mike Huckabee caucus table, trying to determine where the former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate stands on issues important to her: the war in Iraq, gay marriage and abortion rights.
Moore said she hadn’t settled on a Republican favorite, but the John Edwards glasses sticking out of her pocket signalled her choice among the Democrats.
Julie Stolze stood in the middle of all the politicking and pronounced it a success.
Stolze, West Rowan’s curriculum coach, didn’t care which candidate any of the students favored. She and eighth-grade teachers Carmen Gibson, Tim Kepley and Sarah Schiemann were just happy to see 250 students interested in politics and paying attention to the presidential election going on outside their classroom.
And West Middle’s election project continues today when all the eighth-graders are supposed to cast their ballots for one Democratic candidate and one Republican candidate. The entire faculty is also eligible to vote, though not required.
Students and teachers will deliberate in the privacy of one of five voting machines the Rowan County Board of Elections loaned the school. They don’t have ballots that will actually fit in the machines to be punched. They’ll have to fill out their ballots by hand.
(At least that eliminates any questions about hanging chads and computerized voting machines with no paper trail.)
Stolze came up the idea of the eighth-grade-wide project when she and her husband, Greg, visited his parents in Iowa over the Christmas holiday before the Iowa caucuses. Her mother-in-law was a precinct captain and really into the caucus system, where voters gather in small groups and go through a series of votes where they stand up for their favorite candidate. John Edwards’ campaign staff paid a visit to her home.
“I thought, ‘This is cool,’ and I wondered if we might do something with our students,” Stolze said. “I got back here, and the eighth-grade teachers loved the idea.”
Principal Cindy S. Misenheimer supports these types of real-world projects. So Stolze and the teachers got to work.
The great part of the project is it complements objectives for eighth-graders in the N.C. Standard Course of Study, including the “impact of state and national issues on the political climate of North Carolina” study of “contemporary political, economic and social issues at the state and local levels …”
“Of course, we could study this in a textbook, but it’s so much more interesting to get involved in the process,” Stolze said.
And each student got involved.
Carmen Gibson’s class was divided among Republican and Democratic candidates, with no real regard for whether they favored that candidate. Their job was to build a “caucus display” to best represent their assigned candidate’s position on the issues. That required them to go to the library and do research.
At the same time, students in Tim Kepley and Sarah Schiemann’s classes had to research the issues themselves and decide which two or three was most important to them.
On Thursday, Gibson’s students set up their candidate displays รณ and tried to convince students to vote for that candidate. One of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s advocates wore a mask with his face. Besides the glasses, Edwards supporters also sported T-shirts.
The other students brought in forms listing their top issues, and their job was to determine where each candidate stood on that issue by interviewing students representing the candidates and reading their displays.
Quinton Phifer and Brianna Perry, both 13, were explaining their support for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Perry said Clinton wants to get American troops out of Iraq, would support the right of same-sex couples to marry and would fight for universal health care.
When an adult pointed out that Obama might have the same or similar positions on all three issues, Phifer had to admit that personally he favors Obama, though his “job” Wednesday was advocating for Clinton.
“I think that shows how seriously the students are taking this whole process,” Stolze said as she listened to Perry and Phifer. “They’ve researched the candidates and are trying to represent them fairly while coming to their own opinion.”
Keply, one of the eighth-grade teachers, said he’s been most impressed to see some students walk in with one opinion, “but after this, they do change their mind because they’re learning more about the candidates.”
Back at his table, Dakota Winstead had removed the sign extolling Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
He was holding a gold star with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s name. “Another student came by and explained more clearly Giuliani’s policy on drugs,” he explained, stumbling a little when trying to pronounce Giuliani. Winstead wants a candidate who’s tough on the drug trade.
The students won’t get away with just picking a candidate. They’ll have to show their teachers they’ve thought about it by writing an essay on the difference between liberals and conservatives and another titled “If I was 18 and I could vote, which candidate would I vote for and why?”
Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245 or fdeloache@salisburypost.com.