A Lesson in Democracy for 9-Year-Olds

It’s John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson on the third-grade campaign trail. Who will win the election of 1800?

A black and white sketch of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Philip Livingston, and Roger Sherman drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson (second from left) and John Adams (third from left) (Associated Press)

Jessica Primus, a spunky 8-year-old with apple cheeks and almond-shaped brown eyes, ran into the kitchen as soon as her mom walked through the door. “Mom, we’ve got to talk.”

Eve Brensike Primus, a criminal-law professor, knew from the intonation in her daughter’s voice that she wanted to discuss her prep for her elementary school’s simulation of the presidential debates. Eve sat down on a stool at the kitchen island and turned to face her daughter.

Jessica took a deep breath and continued. “On the Alien and Sedition Acts and the size and role of government, I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Jessica explained quickly, in staccato. She was referring to the bills denounced by Vice President Thomas Jefferson but signed into law by President John Adams in 1798—one of which made it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and sanctioned deporting non-citizens who were deemed dangerous. The other restricted speech critical of the federal government. With her hands, Jessica made circles and sliced the air. “But on slavery … I have a problem.”

Jessica’s third-grade class was scheduled to simulate a presidential debate between the candidates of the election of 1800—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—and she wanted to cover all her bases. Even the odious ones. “Mom, I’m Jefferson—and I own slaves. It’s so … bad.” She hung her head. “How can I justify that?”

Eve had been teaching her law students at the University of Michigan the Socratic Method for more than a decade. Now it was time to apply it to help her daughter think through this challenge. At Jessica’s school, the Hebrew Day School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, presidential debates are taught as something you do, not watch. Election simulation encompasses every step: primaries, campaigning, conventions, debates, elections, and inauguration. And teachers say this technique has proven especially effective during this presidential election cycle. “Turning to the debates of an historical election has allowed my students to think for themselves,” said Laura Pasek, a third- and fourth-grade general-studies teacher. “Rather than recite back what adults think of Trump and Clinton, they’re thinking on their feet about the issues.”

To help Jessica understand the other side of an argument, Eve drew from a modern example. “Remember when you watched [Usain] Bolt run a really hard sprint in the Olympics?”

Jessica nodded.

“What would have happened had he run another sprint right after that?”

“He would have gotten tired—and might have lost!”

Now, her mom nodded. “Given that the United States had just finished a war to gain independence from Great Britain, what would have happened had their politicians pushed to end slavery? … If we’d just finished fighting one war,” she continued, “we wouldn’t have wanted to fight another.”

“And if you’d abolished slavery?” Jessica started to think aloud. “The South would have threatened to … leave. OMG … CIVIL WAR!”

Slavery was no less evil. But now Jessica felt like she could at least somehow get into Jefferson’s head. The 8-year-old rushed over to her father’s computer to type out her talking points: Stop slavery slowly. Country cannot handle big change. “We’ve still got a shot at winning this election,” she shouted, pinging on the keyboard. The self-assured presidential candidate, long hair in braids, emailed her rebuttal to her mother. “Mom, please print two copies. I need to give one to Esther, my campaign manager.”

* * *

The Hebrew Day School’s debate simulation is rooted in the work of the University of Michigan lecturer Jeff Stanzler, who also directs the Interactive Communications and Simulations (ICS) group, along with his faculty colleagues, Michael Fahy and Jeff Kupperman. The group is based at the University of Michigan School of Education and creates and facilitates web simulations for upper elementary-, middle-, and high-school students. The model encourages the use of historical figures to address modern dilemmas through role play. And it’s very effective in inculcating in students even at a remarkably young age the ability to listen attentively to others. “Every citizen needs that skill to develop empathy, historical and otherwise,” Stanzler said.

This model has worked well at Jessica Primus’s school. And it’s also proven to be effective at other schools—and colleges—across the country. Research affirms how simulations can build empathy among participants as well as create conditions to explore what it means to be a citizen. To truly understand the perspective of another, students must dive into history and, in the words of the historian R. G. Collingwood, “reenact the past so that it becomes their own.”

To teach a presidential election, Pasek decided to select an historical model. Reviewing various options, she chose the election of 1800—between incumbent Adams, a Federalist, and Jefferson, a Democratic Republican—partially because of its incredible resonance. Some of the issues then, such as the Alien and Sedition acts and the size and role of the government, had surprising parallels to current discussions on immigration and government. Notably, that election was nasty and partisan.

Jessica Primus engages with University of Michigan Associate Professor of Education Jeff Kupperman after the student debate on October 20, 2016. (Myra Klarman Photography)

In learning how to debate, her students did not shy away from conflict and disagreement. Rather, they were just mastering how to do it right: as part of a respectful conversation. Most importantly, they were learning how to see the other side. “One of my key goals was for my students to be able to say, ‘I disagree, and here’s why.’ And also to learn how to argue the positions they don’t personally hold,” Pasek said.

Teaching debate began with practicing on a simple, relatable topic: Should students be rewarded for good behavior? Pasek coached her students to jot down points for both sides, converse back and forth, persuade with reason and evidence rather than emotion, and not take things personally. Then she asked them to graduate to the election of 1800. Some kids rolled their eyes. “I thought, ‘that sounds boring,’” Jessica laughed. “It’s so old!”

Ayelet Lasser and Lily, both 9-year-old fourth-graders, embraced the connection to Alexander Hamilton, the historical figure upon whom the current Broadway runaway hit is based. Classroom prep included checking the historical accuracy of “The Election of 1800” from the musical’s soundtrack. (Answer: It’s complicated.) Like the musical, the role-played presidential campaign has electrified the school. Campaign posters line the walls. The Adams-versus-Jefferson debate has monopolized lunchtime conversation, tetherball at recess, the front and back seats of carpools, and after-school soccer practice.

Jessica, a.k.a. Thomas Jefferson, and Lily, the assistant campaign manager for opponent John Adams, discussed their campaign strategies as they kicked around a soccer ball.

“Wait till you hear our points on slavery,” Jessica said.

“We’re pretty solid on the Alien and Sedition Acts,” Lily responded.

That night, they swapped collegial tips via email about voice control and proper posture.

On October 20, 16 third- and fourth-graders took the stage against the backdrop of a Betsy Ross flag hanging behind a podium decorated with patriotic bunting. On the agenda: opening statements, slavery, views on the size and role of government, the fate of the Alien and Sedition Acts, closing statements. In the audience, rows of first- to fifth-graders sat at the edge of their seats. Behind them, rows of parents and campaign supporters.

Speaking as John Adams, Hannah, 9, belted: “I will make this a country of justice. …  Thomas Jefferson does not stand for what he believes in. He said, ‘All men are created equal,’ but he has slaves. We cannot stand for slavery.”

Also on the Adams team, Ben Shalinsky, 9, took to the podium to speak about the value of big government for a young country. “Our states need help. When one state has trouble, the other states can help that state.”

Hannah and Ben sat down to the right of the podium, where the six other students on the John Adams team were seated.

Stepping up to the microphone as Thomas Jefferson were Jordan Reingold and Josh, two 8-year-olds. Jordan: “The people of this country want to have their rights. They want the freedom of speech; they want the freedom of the press.” Josh then quoted the exact rhetoric of the American founding father and principal author of the Declaration of Independence: “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

Making the closing statement for the eight-person Jefferson team was Jessica, who approached the podium, talking points in hand, poised for the rebuttal. “Between the Alien and Sedition Acts and slavery, John Adams will start a war one way or another. I will be responsible and kind and give people rights and free speech ... I will abolish slavery slowly, but well. I will not spin into Civil War … Spies won't be able to come to America and conquer us with my security.”

A third-grader speaks at a podium in front of an American flag.
Speaking as Thomas Jefferson, Jessica Primus and Molly Greenberg present their closing remarks
at the debate. (Myra Klarman Photography)

Among those watching the impassioned students was Jessica’s father, Richard Primus, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Michigan who teaches his students this very election. He marveled at the children’s ability to be creative and get inside the material of events they did not know. These classroom lessons, he explained, are the very building blocks of democracy. “Democracy needs people to be in the habit of thinking about the merits of the other view, and it’s truly a habit,” he continued. “It’s a way of behaving. It’s not the kind of thing that you can just never do and then suddenly do with ease. Citizens in a democracy need to practice these skills, just like reading or playing an instrument. To do it well, you have to do it all the time. And these 8- and 9-year-olds are getting an incredible head start.”

On school election day, November 4, the candidates and their respective teams will learn the effectiveness of their presidential debating and campaigning when the school elects a winner. The Thomas Jefferson and John Adams campaigns have drafted their respective acceptance speeches—and concession speeches. To be sure, the stakes are high. But one thing is certain: Win or lose, all the third- and fourth-graders are bound to embrace the will of their constituents with respect and grace.

And that is a modern-day civics lesson that grownups could stand to learn, too.