Senior History Students Delve into Voting

Senior History Students Delve into Voting

Twelve seniors took their seats in Room 405 as Director of Academic Program Ilana Pergam ’86 passed out colorful Post-it notes. “Today, you’re going to be building off your work with the Verbatim Performance Lab (VPL),” she said after depositing several Post-its on the last desk.

During the winter term, Joe Salvatore, Clinical Professor of Educational Theatre and Director of Steinhardt's Verbatim Performance Lab at NYU, collaborated with the teachers of Chapin’s Senior History Seminar* to bring VPL techniques (a form of arts-based research rooted in interviewing) to our classrooms.

To kick off their spring project, Ms. Pergam explained that the students would collaboratively develop one essential research question and conduct interviews to help craft their answer. The goal of this project, which focuses on civil discourse, is to sustain productive, informed conversations in forums that might be uncomfortable, practice interview skills and explore perspectives around historic and current election cycles. As such, Ms. Pergam wrote the word “Voting” in big letters in the center of the whiteboard. 

The students then participated in a short exercise during which Ms. Pergam asked a series of five questions that the seniors responded to on their Post-it notes and stuck to the whiteboard. To begin, Ms. Pergam asked, “When you hear the word voting, what one word comes to mind?” (Answers included Election, president, ballot and speeches, among others.)

The next four questions were as follows: “What excites you about the prospect of voting for your first time?” (participation, making a difference, the sticker); “What are some challenges for voters in the U.S.?” (time, disliking both candidates, misinformation); “What historical associations do you have with voting in the U.S.?” (George Washington, women getting the right to vote); and “What’s one question you have about voting?” (Where do you go to vote? Where do you sign up? What do you do if you’re outside of NYC for college?)

Inviting students up to the board, Ms. Pergam encouraged the group to write down any themes or commonalities they noticed among these anonymous answers before brainstorming ideas for their research question. “Your question should be wondering in nature,” she said. “Not something someone could answer with a yes or no.”

A swirl of complex ideas began to generate from our students’ deep discussions. They wondered: What makes you trust people in politics? To what extent is trustworthiness objective? What are the effects of media and social media? What would voting system be like without media? How are our views really formed? Do people vote for candidates or what they represent?

At last, the group landed on their final overarching question: “How do people decide who to vote for and how has that changed over time?”

Diving right into the next step, the students spent some time considering what kind of people they wanted to interview, aiming for diversity in several aspects including age, political affiliation, gender, location and economic status. The seniors were permitted to interview anyone– grandparents, family members, friends or Chapin alums. However, the participant had to be 28 or older and have voted in at least one U.S. Presidential Election.

With these initial tasks complete, Ms. Pergam and Emily Feder (co-teacher for this course) revealed their final endeavor. “Each of you will create a 4–5-minute podcast, integrating your interview and a cultural artifact related to voting, in an attempt to answer your broad question,” they explained.

In future lessons, the students will plan out a three-section narrative structure for their podcast including an introduction, content section and conclusion, and create a storyboard using Milanote, a free online project planning tool.

Once completed, the seniors will use Audacity to record, edit and stitch together audio content to create their podcasts. The students will also transcribe the entire “episode” and utilize their VPL skills to examine the connection between vocal delivery strategies and content, and the value of interpersonal communication within wider political discourse. “This practice is intended to help students to make connections between how people express themselves through words, and the ideas that they are ultimately expressing,” Ms. Pergam noted. “It’s one way in which they can analyze how ‘the personal’ connects to ‘the political.’”

Our seniors – and eager first-time voters – will no doubt gain tremendous insight as they continue to delve into the world of civics and politics.

*Senior History Seminar Teachers: Emily Feder and Charles Karcher; Verbatim Performance Teachers and Podcast Project Collaborators: Sarah Bellantoni and Ilana Pergam