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For Educators - K-12 Promising Approaches
Grade level: GED and ESOL students
What if there was a Clothes Director who made decisions about what you wore today? What questions would you have about him or her?
These two questions kick off the Better Questions, Better Decisions Voter Education Initiative (BQBD) workshop. BQBD was created by The Right Question Project to address the problem of limited citizen participation in low-income communities. In order to activate low-income voters, BQBD encourages students to think critically about decisions that happen in their daily lives– decisions they make and decisions that are made for them by others – in order to engage them in the voting process. By asking questions about decisions made that are close to them, participants draw parallels to the larger world of decisions being made at the policy level, and feel a greater sense of urgency in having a say in these decisions.
The core components of the BQBD program are a 60-minute workshop and a DVD with stories produced by students. In the BQBD workshop, students: focus on decisions that affect them, formulate questions about those decisions, and formulate questions about elected officials and voting.
In the DVD component of the program, students watch short videos written, developed, and produced by other students about decisions made in their lives. Students then reflect on decisions made in their own lives that have affected them.
We have seen that previously disengaged citizens begin to see themselves as active citizens and voters when they get to reverse the flow of information by asking their own questions rather than simply receiving information others provide them. Learning how to ask their own questions helps them also discover how they can hold elected officials accountable for meeting the needs of people like them.
BQBD puts critical thinking and self-advocacy skills at the center of voter education efforts. These skills are of immediate value to people who are used to being lectured or persuaded into voting. They also have powerful long-term value, as more citizens are able to zero in on key decisions on all levels of government and formulate their own questions to hold decision-makers accountable.
An evaluation done by a graduate student in Robert Putnam’s seminar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University revealed “strong success” by BQBD, particularly in strengthening critical thinking skills.” Sixty-six percent of the 116 students surveyed mentioned, unprompted, learning various critical thinking skills, and 89% expressed an interest in voting. One group of 15 students were asked to comment on their feelings about voting before and after the workshop, and almost all students described the workshop experience as making them “more prepared” and “more interested” in voting.
A workshop guide “In The Land of Decisions” and support materials Their Decisions, Our Stories video and a discussion guide
The workshop and support materials, the videos and the discussion guide are available online at www.rightquestion.org Support in using the materials is available online by registering in the BQBD Forum, by e-mail or by calling RQP at 617-492-1900.
Maria has been a U.S. citizen for almost a decade, but has never seen much value in voting. She’s stayed pretty focused on the next task at hand – getting a job, keeping a job, finding a new one, taking care of her family, paying the rent, getting health care - doing what she could do to help herself through a series of menial labor postings. Now, sitting in a GED classroom in Tucson, AZ, hoping as a 28 year old to get her high school equivalency onto her record, she explained : “voting always seemed like something that other people did. I never really felt that it affected me. Besides, there’s so much I don’t know, I just didn’t think I would understand how to vote.”
Jean, a recently laid off office secretary in her 40s, is currently enrolled in a state-funded job training program in central New Hampshire. Preoccupied with trying to find another job, and eager to get her family’s health insurance back, she is hoping that additional job training will prepare her for good paying jobs that do not yet exist. Jean has never voted because she’s “never been quite sure the difference it would make for me.” Then, upon further thought, she confesses: “I don’t think that I’d actually know how to vote. It seems kind of complicated.”
Maria, who lives an hour from the Mexican border, and Jean, who’s about an hour from the Canadian one, offer similar explanations for not voting - no matter how many campaign ads appear in their living rooms, no matter how many people knock on their doors and no matter how much information is shoved under their doors or put into their hands.
Nothing, it seems, could turn them into voters.
Then, both Maria and Jean, thousands of miles apart, participated in a simple, educational workshop that led to a major shift in their thinking about voting. The workshop taught them specific methods for coming up with their own questions and challenged them to ask questions about a range of decisions that others make that affect them. “Now, I’ve thought about things I never would have thought about,” Maria commented after the workshop. “I’m definitely going to vote now.” Jean realized that “I see that people are making decisions that affect me. I better try to have a say about who’s making those decisions.”
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