By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer

A conventional presidential election year provides teachers and students with real-life opportunities to learn democracy in action. It’s a chance to watch the foundations of government play out as they have for more than two centuries.

But in this election year, where fiction became fact and facts were presented as fiction, in which students started out learning about the pillars of U.S. democracy then later watched political leaders attempt to chip away at them, what lessons were learned and how much confusion still exists?

In the weeks surrounding the election, one student felt so strongly that his peers needed to understand the electoral college that he created a miniature version at their high school. A Black student worried about violence in the streets as Trump supporters challenged the election results. And, a high school government teacher, said it was difficult to appear to remain impartial as she had to explain to students that it was not part of the U.S. democratic process to threaten to overturn a valid election. 

On Monday, as members of the electoral college cast their votes, some students still wonder if American democracy is sound and whether the 306 votes entitled by the system to President-elect Joe Biden will be cast in his direction.

(Pennsylvania will provide a livestream of the state’s electoral college vote at noon Monday, Dec 13)

“This is incredibly different from how other generations have seen politics,” said Chloe Werner, 17, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. 

For Vanessa Martocci,17, a senior at North Hills High School, “it seemed like there were so many different versions of the truth.”

But, Chloe, Vanessa and other local high school students interviewed in recent weeks explained their generation is armed with a powerful tool to help them separate truth from falsehoods: The ability to fact check.

In recent years, students in their various classes and activities, such as newspaper and history clubs, have been taught to scrutinize questionable information that comes their way via news media, social media, family and friends.

Even before the election, students had been exposed to the world of “alternative facts” during the Trump presidency, and learned their responsibility to seek out the truth. 

The fact checking skill, students said, has helped them develop clearer viewpoints and understanding of the candidates and their comments, the election process and the workings of the electoral process — viewpoints, they said, often more thoughtful and discerning than what they’ve seen in some adults and members of Congress. 

How they fact checked during the campaign

Some students, like Nick Friday, 16, a junior at North Hills High School, developed specific systems for fact checking. Nick, who identified himself as a conservative, found it particularly important to fact check information before writing articles about the presidential debates for the school newspaper The Arrowhead. 

Nick said he frequently used the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times as impartial news sources in his fact checking process. 

But as an additional step to ensure partiality in the articles he wrote about the debates for the school paper, he watched both Fox News and CNN for their debate analysis to see how it compared with his notes.

“Everybody knows there are media sources that lean left and right. I wanted to see how that compared to mine. I wanted perspective,” Nick said. 

He wrote from a conservative viewpoint following the first debate and from a liberal perspective after the second debate. 

Nick said it also helped that he is enrolled in an Advanced Placement government and politics class where lessons and discussions took place about the role of government in the election process and about the ideologies of the Republican and Democratic parties. 

Nick said that like President Trump, he would like to see the country’s economy reopened, but  he disagrees with President Trump on his relaxed views on coronavirus prevention and on his legal filings to overturn the election results. 

Vanessa, co-editor of The Arrowhead, said the misinformation she has heard throughout the campaign and after the election “did get confusing.”

“Somebody would tell me something and if I didn’t already know about it, I would go look it up after the conversation. I was surprised at the amount of misinformation, the versions of the truth that were out there,” she said. 

For some younger students the confusion was a bit deeper.

“I feel like growing up you hear facts — because adults tell you it’s true. As a kid you believe what adults tell you. But then you watch this election and everyone around you is blatantly lying about stuff,” said Maisie Johnston, a freshman at Shady Side Academy. 

Maisie Johnston, 14

Maisie, 14, said she spent a considerable amount of time researching and reading in order to understand what was true in the campaign and beyond and sometimes found herself more knowledgeable than some adults around her. 

During the several-day vote count following the election, Maisie had the New York Times “on my computer at all times, refreshing” so she could stay up to date on the electoral vote count. 

Her classmate, Ahniya Anthony, also 14, said she learned early on that “some facts weren’t always facts” in this election year. “You had to put more time in to see if things were actually real.” 

Michele Halloran teaches AP U.S. government and politics at Allderdice High School. At times, she found it difficult to appear to remain impartial as she led students through fact-checking processes and lessons on how the government is supposed to work. 

“It’s been really hard when you point out things that are unconstitutional, that shouldn’t be happening like calls to the state officials saying you should change the electors,” Halloran said. “We have to look at what’s in the constitution and what’s not.”

Halloran said her students have paid close attention to the irregularities surrounding the election process. “The kids have had their antennas up and been very aware about how this whole thing plays out. The kids in these classes have had a granular look at how this works,” Halloran said.      

COVID-19, Is it real?

All of the students interviewed said they believed the facts presented by the medical and science experts on the coronavirus, its spread and the measures required to stop the spread.

Some found it astounding that the president, in his campaign messages, downplayed the virus and advice of medical experts

“Trump’s denial (of the seriousness of the virus) — it’s upsetting, at least for me because it is a real thing. People are dying and it’s affecting so many lives and families and life overall and it’s just tough to hear people say it’s not true,” Vanessa said. 

“People are always saying crazy things. I think it’s just gotten to be a larger thing. Creating your own version of the truth,” she said.

Ahniya Anthony, 14

Maisie is confounded that the President and his followers would reject science.

“It’s surreal that we grow up learning that science should be one of your main news sources and yet somewhere along the line people stop believing in science and instead they believe their favorite politician or media person. Even if people are dying.”

Ahniya said she was somewhat shocked that there are different opinions on whether COVID-19 is a serious health threat. “People have different opinions and you can’t change anyone’s mind,” she said.

Nick said he believes there is no question that information coming from scientists and medical experts should lead the country’s response to the virus. “I am all for masks and I am willing to do it,” Nick said. 

Electoral college lessons

Douglas Bensch, 17, a senior at North Hills High School, decided to use his skills as president of the history club and president of the high school television station to sponsor a mock election and a North Hills High School version of the electoral college a week before the presidential election. 

Douglas Bensch, 17

He didn’t realize at the time how important the lesson would be.

To create the high school electoral college, Douglas used the first letter of each student voter’s last name and created a state for each letter. He then used names of locations throughout the North Hills for the  25 states he created and assigned electoral votes based on the number of students in each state. 

In the school mock election Biden won the popular vote by 342-237 and the electoral vote 105.5 to 26.5. Douglas used the high school television station NHTV to display the electoral map and election results. 

Voter turnout was just 50 percent of the high school population, which disappointed Bensch. But he said he was pleased with the project because “I’ve woken people up and they now realize how it works.” 

Just a week later, an understanding of the electoral college came in handy for students who followed election results.

Danielle Jordan, 17

Danielle Jordan,17, a senior at Allderdice High school, said she became “overwhelmed” at times with the misinformation about the election returns. “I was checking the electoral map constantly. There was kind of a lot going on at once. It was hard to concentrate on school.”

Danielle, who said she is a liberal, had a sound understanding of the electoral college and how it works going into the election. Afterward, she found it incredulous that Republican leaders would support the belief that the election results could be overturned. 

“It was hard to comprehend that they knew all of this stuff” (about the workings of the electoral college and the lack of evidence of voter fraud) and yet continued to support Trump in his legal efforts to overturn the election,” Danielle said. 

For Maisie, there’s been little worry the election results will be overturned. 

“There was very little evidence of voter fraud. They can’t just go against what the democracy has been doing for years and years,” she said. 

Ahynia’s initial reaction to President Trump’s rejection of the election results was fear. “I was nervous because in other states they were reporting Trump people threatening violence. Some of my neighbors are Trump people. But it stayed peaceful. They took their signs back into their homes and nothing happened.”

Moving forward — the effects of “alternative facts”

Vanessa  said she thinks Democracy, despite the twists and turns, remains on track. And the research she did in recent months has solidified her understanding of it. 

“I think I already had a pretty decent understanding of it but it definitely reinforced it to talk about it with my family and have those kinds of discussions about how it works why it was put in place.”

Meena Lane, a senior at North Hills High School, thinks fear about how far things went off the rails in this election will prompt more people her age to get involved in future elections.  Her 18th birthday fell 12 days after the presidential election so missed the opportunity to vote in the election she watched so closely. 

Meena called the attempts during the election to dismantle the democratic process “scary.”

“You wonder what is going to happen in the future,” Meena said. “People my age are finally understanding what’s going on and being involved in government and politics.”

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