Eighteen-year-old Shannon French felt the gravity of this year’s presidential election long before she stepped into a voting booth for the first time in November.
“I knew this election would make a difference no matter who was voted in,” French said. “Being a young adult, I felt it was really important to be involved in that process.”
Wanting to make an informed choice on her ballot, the Colchester High School senior applied for a new elective offered at her school, a class called Election 2016.
Teacher Rachel Cohen conceived the course last year after sensing students might be looking for a structured way to engage in civil political discourse during an often-polarizing campaign.
If the opportunity for election evaluating wasn’t enough to entice students to sign up, Cohen said a culminating class trip to Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day surely was.
French was one of 15 students selected to participate in the class and accompanying trip. The crew has prepped for the excursion with extensive research, including personal projects and a fundraiser. The latter was held outside the high school turned polling site on Election Day.
In a formal application earlier this year, students explained why they wanted to go to Washington and how they planned to handle the increased work: The elective class was not built into a typical course load and required students to attend sessions during free periods and after school.
The course had the potential to turn personal, Cohen said, but by design was an objective study of the currently unfolding election and of prior political face-offs.
“We were not in the business of supporting an agenda of either candidate from the beginning,” the social studies instructor said. “We might have different opinions, but this class is about learning about the electoral process.”
The students watched all three presidential debates, engaging in virtual discussions during each. Rather than expressing their own beliefs, Cohen said the kids considered the candidates’ tactics and rhetoric, predicting why voters might be drawn to each and how the debate helped undecided voters make up their minds.
To keep things polite, the class laid ground rules at the start of the course, promising to remember political beliefs are personal and complicated and to always seek to understand others’ perspectives.
“I’m being honest when I say it worked,” Cohen said. “It was very civil and open minded.”
Student Sawyer Loftus said having an objective focus on the electoral process helped the talks stay diplomatic – an adjective scarcely used to describe political pundits on television. He attributes the classroom success to a culture of respect fostered in the school at large.
“It’s really hard to be biased when looking at the process,” Loftus said. “In that way, we avoided that contentious part of the election.”
Loftus’ peer, Chloe Bullock, concurred. Still, she said there was another motivating factor in the back of everyone’s mind.
“We know that we have to spend multiple days in Washington, D.C. together,” Bullock said, laughing. “We want to like each other still.”
Before and after Inauguration Day, students will explore museums and monuments, Cohen said. For about half the students, this will be their first trip to the nation’s capitol.
One student making a repeat trip is Loftus. As a former intern for Gov. Peter Shumlin, he caught the political bug long ago. He said he’s carried a pocket constitution in his backpack for at least four years. This class only confirmed his desire to explore a career in government.
But for fellow student Natalee Garen, the coursework prompted a career switch. At the beginning of the year, she planned to pursue a college degree in music.
“Just having the discourse in this classroom and taking responsibility for democracy has made me realize I belong in government,” Garen said.
Outside of classroom discourse, students worked on individual research projects of their own. Topics ranged from gender issues to social media, both major factors in the campaign.
Student Nick Schramm explored the Electoral College process and conducted interviews with local members of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign staff. The close proximity made the presidential race feel even more accessible, he said.
Though ballots have long since been counted, the students continue to keep on eye on political news. Schramm said he thinks the contentious election cycle is sure to make for an interesting Inauguration Day.
“I feel like I’m partially a little nervous about things that could happen,” he said. “But I’m also excited to be there and watch people react.”