Class gets moment in CNN limelight with mock debate
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - It was a familiar scene for election season. Zach Ihnat was speaking at a clip about America's fiscal policies and the struggling economy. Al Dean Jr. shook his head and interrupted to point out how many jobs have been created in the last four years.
It was both fitting and unusual.
Unusual because Zach and Al are 13 and the conversation was taking place in a seventh- grade classroom. It was fitting because they were channeling the two nominees for president.
"I just hate when people make false promises," Zach said.
The students were reenacting arguments made in a mock presidential debate at Horace Mann Middle School last week. Al portrayed President Barack Obama, imitating the president and presenting his policies as if they were his own. Zach did the same with Mitt Romney.
Their running mates accompanied them. Sam Dulin, 12, portrayed Rep. Paul Ryan. Chase Goldsmith, 13, was Vice President Joe Biden.
Video from that debate was shown on CNN Student News, a daily news program for middle and high school students, produced by CNN staff.
Being featured on that show had long been a goal for Shandon Tweedy, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Horace Mann and organized the mock debate. She realized mid-debate that this was their chance so she grabbed her phone to take a quick video of the students and submitted it to CNN. It was featured on the show Tuesday morning.
"It was just one of those moments as a teacher where you just sit there and are amazed by what your students are doing," she said.
Al and Zach had been arguing politics at their desks for weeks when they proposed the idea for a more structured debate to Tweedy.
"It just happened to be a good fit with what we're studying right now, government," she said. "And I thought it was such a great idea."
They spent weeks studying up on their politicians, writing speeches and appointing bodyguards. The whole thing culminated in a mock debate in front of the entire seventh grade, followed by an election. (Obama won both the popular and electoral vote in a landslide, but the students admit it was a less-than-scientific poll).
Some parts of the speeches were typical middle school election-speak kitsch.
"First, since we are in a school, I'd like to teach you all the three most important letters in the English alphabet: U, S and A!" Sam said as Ryan.
Others could be mistaken for lines from a stump speech.
"Their reality is constant worry about retirement, college, housing and even putting food on the table every night," Zach said as Romney.
"They came up with responses that were reflective of what the candidate would really have done," Tweedy said.
And they went beyond ideology. Al wore a blue tie, peppered his speech with "uh" to imitate the president's speech patterns and practiced his "president walk."
"I think Obama was born with the walk," he said. "But I worked on it."
Something about the act of imitating the politicians, the students said, brought them closer to the process than just evaluating them.
Back in the sixth grade, Sam thought that politics were simple, that there was a right answer and a wrong answer and that a voter just had to be smart enough to decide which was which.
Now he knows better.
"It's just so complicated," Sam said. "There's more details than I thought, and when you look at all the topics and have to decide - it's really hard."
And what they found even harder was realizing that they couldn't always defer to their parents' political views because they don't always agree with them (they declined to talk about this in detail, for fear of retribution at home).
And now they realize that while it might be OK to pick a favorite based on the tenor of a politician's voice or the pattern of his tie, they'll be able to vote in the next presidential election.
Their opinions will really matter then.
"It took, like, three weeks for us to do a seventh-grade election," Chase said. "Can you imagine if it was the whole country?"