Political Engagement

M_WolfeOakland Tech teacher Maryann Wolfe responded to a question about her motivation for participating in the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age initiative. “I really love teaching government and I think people should be involved in their government….The definition of democracy changes over time, and we need to educate students about…what it has been over time and what it should be in the future.”

Maryann teaches AP Government at Oakland Tech High School where she also co-directs the Paideia program, whose mission is “to educate the whole child by teaching thinking and communication skills” through year-long integrated courses with a social sciences focus. She has taught at Tech for 27 years and in those years has instituted programs that bring Tech seniors to Washington, DC to experience national government firsthand every other year. Her AP Government students, along with AP English students, also have the opportunity to travel to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in Oregon every other year. She is the kind of teacher whose students remember her, come back to visit and mentor current students, and who contribute to Maryann’s ongoing programs.

Her EDDA work brought yet another way for her students to connect to government – civic action. Her year-one project focused on the impact of voter participation on electoral politics, as well as the significance of broader engagement in civic processes. Her civic action piece took advantage of the Logo_2_hr-thumb-363x223-382fact that 2012 was an election year, which enabled students to work on high profile local and national political campaigns. Maryann required students to work on one of the presidential campaigns or on a local initiative for 4 hours over the course of the semester.

Students went down to the Obama campaign headquarters in downtown Oakland to do phone banking. A student commented “I thought it was really cool that when people saw us in the [Obama campaign] headquarters…they were like, ‘oh, you’re young.'” Other students working in teams canvassed Oakland neighborhoods for support of Measure J, the local bond measure for funding school facilities improvements. Students commented on some of the challenges – it could get boring making call after call, hard to have people hang up on you or close a door on you, tiring walking block after block carrying campaign signs.

But Maryann observed that ultimately “…the benefit is that they become familiar with their own community and community needs and begin to understand that they can have some impact on the community.” Students reported that the experience made them realize that they could have an impact and that they had a responsibility to participate in politics. “I remember on election night when I was home with my parents watching….It was like…you can picture people going to vote and seeing those numbers change and seeing which states turned which color just because you don’t really feel like you make an impact, but see the results of an election and it’s like…I was part of that, even if it’s not in a major way, it’s still exciting because these elections are so historic and so to be almost voting age and getting involved in other ways too. It’s like it’s easy and it would make me want to do it more so that was cool.”

Maryann described a growing sense of civic agency among her students, “…some of these kids came back, well, it’s because of me that Measure J won….And some of them even saying, well, that some of the folks hadn’t heard of it [Measure J ] but they were so glad and they were willing to put up those lawn signs, because they had those too. So they were — they felt really good that they were like, teaching people in the community”

In her Year 2 EDDA work Maryann and her students will be taking up civic action to address the problem of making schools safe. She sees this as “…a real opportunity for students to engage in civic action as they are directly impacted by school incidents and are very aware of the national issues around school security.” Tech was also selected to be one of six schools to participate in the Close Up Foundation‘s program that uses digital technology – Google Hangouts – to link students and government officials in conversation. Maryann’s students will be “hanging out” with government officials in January 2014!