Kindergarten teacher Kevin Gallagher remembers going to the polls with his dad and his sister when he was very young. Even then he knew then that this was serious business, a citizen’s solemn duty.
“The whole experience of walking up, about a 15-minute walk away, and talking about the importance of this as a responsibility as a grownup, and that, of course, everybody does this, and you will too,” says Gallagher, who notes he hasn’t missed a single election since he turned 18.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all serious business in his kindergarten classrooms, both at Seattle’s Bryant Elementary and online. (He also posts educational videos on his YouTube channel, 327teach.)
A regular fixture in his classes has been to vote on what Halloween tie pattern the teacher should wear: Candy corn or pumpkins?
Learning the rules that govern our civic duty is important, and children also learn that they may in no way tell others what to vote for in the balloting about the neckties.
“I talk about electioneering, that if I was a grownup and told you to vote for the pumpkin tie, I would be breaking the law,” says Gallagher.
[ More from Mr. Gallagher: When kindergarten goes online: Advice from a beloved Seattle teacher ]
Gallagher started teaching the civics curriculum “I Know My Nation” shortly after the 2008 election (Obama versus McCain), when he noticed how many public adult conversations suddenly revolved around politics.
He realized it was a good idea to get kindergarten kids — who were likely overhearing all these conversations, which often concerned race, gender and age — familiar with election concepts.
“I looked at the kids in front of me and thought, They should be a part of this conversation,” he says. “It shouldn’t be adult-talk and then kid-talk.”
He’s developed a lexicon to repeat to help kids understand the words and terms being thrown around in conversations this year: Red. Blue. Republican. Democrat. Biden. Trump. Inslee. Culp. He says he wants kids to be able to grasp what is happening around them and say, “OK, this is what all that talk is, but now I have it at my level.”
“A goal of mine, from the very beginning, has been that I would like to be responsible for the creation of an 18-year-old thinking voter,” Gallagher says. (Since March, he has created a video playlist for “I Know My Nation.”)
With remote learning, he will not be holding a mock presidential election this year since it’s all but impossible to preserve kindergarten voters’ anonymity in an online video forum.
In the past, he has engaged students in the process by setting up voting for class read-aloud books, and sometimes even color-codes the ballots by gender so kids can examine and explain possible demographic trends in the classroom.
Parents can give kids a sense of agency and do something similar, Gallagher notes, by sometimes offering a vote on what vegetables to eat for dinner: corn or carrots?
“Keep thinking about that 18-year-old,” he says.
The key is letting them know that their votes count. “If kids just think they’re a part of the process from being 3 years old and forward, then Election Day matters, and voting matters, and showing up at the polls matters,” he says.
Back before Washington was a vote-by-mail state, local adults would come to Bryant Elementary’s library on Election Day. Mr. Gallagher recalls that he would take his students to the hallway to clap for the voters as they arrived to vote — and after they were done. “So many times, people would just see kids sitting and weren’t paying attention, and then they would stop,” said Gallagher.
“Some people got choked up!”
Applause at the polls? That beats a digital “I voted” sticker any day.