'Of course we’re paying attention': Student voices from participation in government class

Nov 5, 2019

As adults head to the polls Tuesday, WBFO takes a look at what students are learning about voting in the required half-year course called Participation in Government, commonly known as PIG.


Mark Borgioli teaches social studies at P.S. #192 Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. One week before Election Day in Erie County, he explained to his PIG class that the Masten Avenue school will be used as a polling place, perhaps for some of their parents, family members and neighbors. He also encouraged the students to use their district-provided laptops to explore past election results from the site.

As they did, stacks of textbooks with titles like, “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” and “America: History of Our Nation” sat piled up on a table at the side of the classroom.

Text books are piled up on a table along the wall of Mr. Borgioli's classroom.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

PIG is a required course for all high school seniors in New York State, as is its counterpart half-year course in economics. The class is designed to give students the knowledge and skills “necessary for active citizenship,” according to state guidelines. There’s no mandated curriculum, but the state does say teachers should cover “rights, responsibilities and duties of citizenship,” including voting.

“That’s the critical factor here,” Borgioli told WBFO. “You can explain to them that their participation is the path but they’re going to have to walk that path.”

Students use laptops to explore past election results in Buffalo and Western New York.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

Many of Borgioli’s students seem eager to do just that.

“Young people in particular are so, like, ready to vote and ready to stay on top of things because nowadays we have social media, with the internet to keep us informed on these things when before, we weren’t watching the news,” said a student named Olivia.

“We weren’t paying attention to politics. But now, with how turbulent things are, of course we’re going to be paying attention.”

Several of Olivia’s peers, all 16 or 17 years old, agreed. They might not be of voting age yet, but it’s clear the students are paying attention to the political crises of our time—and especially to how they play out online.

“Our generation and the next generation coming up, with how we utilize technology, obviously we have a better grasp because we grew up with it,” said Stephen, after Borgioli divided the class into two discussion groups. “With, like, social media now, we do have a voice. Now we have an outlet to speak and have other people speak to us as well.”

Nadiana, one of the 16-year-olds, said she’s disappointed she won’t be old enough to vote in the 2020 presidential election. “I feel like, especially in this generation, a lot of people want to be more out there and cause change,” she said.

Nyree read out a list compiled by the group tasked with discussing reasons why young people should vote.

“So that we have a say in the government; we care the most about change; our lives are going to be affected by these decisions by much longer; our safety is at risk because of the crisis surrounding gun control,” she read, and “[to] make a dent in the damages by adult greed; and … we can spread our truths using the internet.”

High school seniors in New York State are required to take a half-credit Participation in Government (PIG) course in order to graduate.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

The second group, though, discussed the many factors while young people often don’t vote.

“If politicians aren’t coming to you and caring about young people, why would we vote in the first place? It’s supporting something that we don’t even care about. Not saying that I don’t care about it, but… it’s a representation thing, 100%,” Angelina said.

“My sister’s 26 and she doesn’t vote because she feels that she’s not being represented. Or there’s people that you simply just don’t want to vote for.”

Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 represent about one of every five eligible voters, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. There are 7 million more eligible young voters than older adults, but the country’s youth have historically voted at much lower rates than their elders. That’s something Borgioli tries to impress on his students.

“You have the potential to be the new force in directing our public policy,” he told students, gesturing to a chart breaking down national voting trends by age. “These folks [older adults aged 65+] do not have that potential because they’re kind of tapped out.”

Borgioli said he doesn’t force anyone to register to vote as part of PIG class, but he does encourage it. He also educates students about New York State’s policy that allows 17-year-olds to register to vote within the same calendar year as when they’ll turn 18 (though they must wait until they turn 18 to vote).

An hour and half south of Buffalo, Jerry Musial teaches Participation in Government and economics together as a year-long course at Salamanca High School. It’s part of a very different district than Buffalo Public Schools.

Salamanca High School and the town of Salamanca are located within the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Allegany Territory.
Credit Salamanca City Central School District/https://www.salamancany.org/Page/80

“The issues that are important to people in rural areas, this is a rural area, are different than those in urban areas,” Musial told WBFO. “Here, the issue of gun control probably takes on a whole different tact.”

Salamanca is located within the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Allegany Territory, and about 38% of the school district’s students are Native American. Cattaraugus County also voted heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016, so many students lean conservative or libertarian.

Musial said the diverse mix of backgrounds and opinions makes for a good learning environment.

“Every class sort of has its own personality and its own little mini-culture that it comes in with that you have nothing to do with, so you try to figure that out and make it so that they do feel comfortable talking to each other.”

The results of fostering such an environment to learn about how government works seem promising. Musial said he’s observed a growing trend of more civic engagement by students.

Young people between the ages of 18 and 29 represent about one of every five eligible voters, according to CIRCLE.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

“For extra credit, if they have something that they’re passionate about they can stand up and get on their soap box. It’s the soap box extra credit, and they’re allowed to get up and make their speech and everybody hears and I’ve had a couple of students who have taken what they’ve said here in class and then moved with that and gone to the board of education and gotten some policies changed.”

He doesn’t give PIG full credit, but Musial also says he sees several former students getting involved in local and Seneca Nation politics.

Back in Buffalo, Borgioli’s students at Visual and Performing Arts filled almost the entire class with their discussion about young people and voting.

“There’s so many of us, so wouldn’t you think the smart thing [for politicians to do] is… to get us to vote for them?” a student asked earnestly as she was interrupted by the bell signaling the end of second period.

“That’s the bell—crazy!” her classmates said, grabbing their laptops and continuing the conversation into the hallway.