Meet Inspire U.S. teacher champion, Josh Benson, from Peak to Peak Charter School in Colorado. This school has earned the Eliza Pickrell Routt Award for registering to vote 85% of the senior class for 2 years in a row. Mr. Benson took some time to talk to us about teaching and preparing students to be civically engaged.
How many years have you been teaching and what classes have you taught?
I have been teaching for 10 years. I began my teaching career as an adjunct professor at Northeastern University in Boston. There I taught First-Year Writing and Writing Across the Discipline. Since coming to Peak to Peak 7 years ago I have taught AP Language and Composition, American Literature, British Literature, Film Studies, Human Geography, and U.S. Government.
Why is it important for young people to start early in participating in our Democracy?
As the largest voting block in our country, it is vital that the voices of young people are included in the decision making at both the local and the national level. A democracy is only functional when the populace participates in the political process. With only a small percentage of voting age Americans participating in all elections, we are far from the ideal version of democracy.
Why are you willing to give up class time to allow voter registration and voter engagement activities to happen?
My classes have always focused on critical thinking. What better real-world practice of critical thinking than engaging with the political process. Why wouldn't I give up one class period for voter registration and engagement? I can't think of a curricular goal that is more important than encouraging my students to be engaged participants in the political process. With the privilege provided to me as an educator, I believe it is my responsibility to do all that I can to encourage our youngest voters to participate in the electoral process and see the value of that engagement.
What impact have voter registration and voter engagement events had on your school and students?
There is a buzz in our hallways around politics and elections. In the last three years, I have seen more political engagement from our student population than ever before. Even those that aren't old enough to vote are trying to find ways to be involved in the process. I know that this work is only just beginning. Every year I have a new set of 16 and 17 years that might not have a role model of what civic engagement looks like. It is my goal to provide that to my students.
What will it take to shift the culture of voting among 18-20 year-olds across the country?
This is already happening, but I believe we will reach a watershed moment when younger people begin to see candidates that they identify with and that are more aligned with their experience and world-view. I saw a hint of this already. In the November election, a 25-year-old ran for city council of our small town. While he lost by a narrow margin, he ran a smart campaign that appealed to the younger voters.
What issues impact students at your school that may be improved through their vote?
My students care about school board curriculum issues and school funding. Additionally, I have many students that are the children of immigrants. These students are nervous about policy changes and the political rhetoric surrounding Muslims and Hispanics.
What more do you think high schools could do to prepare students to be regular and educated voters?
High school teachers need to be empowered to discuss political issues in the classroom. While some education might help many in deciding how to navigate these tricky conversations, it is the most engaging part of my day to hear from young people about the issues of our day.
What has been the highlight of your experience working with Inspire students and the Inspire program?
I get so excited to see politically engaged students. It gives me hope for the future. I think the work that Inspire is doing is so important and I would be happy to have them visit my classroom every year to continue this important work!
Photo: Inspired Leader, Robin Peterson and Mr. Benson