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HomeVoices“Vote for Turtle” Teaches Kids to Engage With Democracy

“Vote for Turtle” Teaches Kids to Engage With Democracy

As the political landscape in the U.S. becomes ever more complicated, experts argue it’s imperative to teach children about voting. Denver’s Jana Locke, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Safety, has provided teachers and parents with a new tool to do so—her newly published book “Vote for Turtle.”

“Vote For Turtle,” published June 6, is a children’s book that helps kids understand civic processes and encourages them to add more tools to their citizenship toolbox. The book was inspired by real-life stories of kids across the country and Colorado taking the initiative to create state symbols. In 1899, students elected the Rocky Mountain columbine as the state flower. But Locke’s direct inspiration was from 2008 when the western painted turtle became the official state reptile of Colorado through a similar voting bloc

“Reading about how students had created state symbols in multiple states shows that kids have a voice long before they have a vote,” Locke wrote in an email.

“Vote For Turtle” follows the story of a third-grade class from Colorado that is learning about state symbols. A third-grader and the main character, Ella, realizes that Colorado doesn’t have a state reptile. From there, the third-graders begin to brainstorm the best candidate. Ella suggests a turtle that wins the vote in her class. Off to the capital they go to propose the bill.

“What I tried to do for this story was make it an entry point and an accessible entry point for kids to understand the civic process with something that’s really tangible for them,” Locke said. “Is it the most important public policy issue? Certainly not, but it’s something that kids can relate to and see how they can be influential in different topics if they chose to.”

Children typically begin learning about government and history in fourth grade, but this varies over time, schools and districts. Locke hopes that “Vote For Turtle” will make these lessons more memorable and meaningful for elementary students today. Locke said a lot of parents felt that their kids were not exactly understanding civic processes. Kids were familiar with voting because of their parents, but they were not entirely aware of other options they have available to them. But the author said there are other civic processes kids can engage in, and that’s what she aimed to show in her book.

“It can seem distant to kids. Seeing something that’s not open for them, it can seem like something that is out of touch for them or not reachable for them, but there actually are things you can do. They can get involved in campaigns, they can do something like this where they can propose a bill, they can go watch, they can testify, you don’t have to be 18 to testify on a bill,” Locke said. 

Locke’s 11-year-old daughter, Elsa, who inspired the book’s main character, Ella, was in teacher Diane Santorico’s fourth-grade class at Brown International Academy when Locke did a read-aloud for one of the drafts of “Vote For Turtle” in 2021. 

“Fourth grade is when we do our government unit and so it was just a perfect fit,” Santorico said. “When she told me about it, it was so exciting for the students. Not only the book itself is fun, but to have someone that they knew that their mom was a writer and author and was going to share her book with us, that was probably more exciting because they could see that this is accessible. This is real. This is someone we know who can write and publish and I think that really struck them.”

Santorico’s fourth-grade classroom showed their excitement in the form of giggles and curiosity about kids participating in government in “Vote For Turtle.” 

“They wanted to know if they could do something like that or if there was some kind of symbol that hadn’t been come up with yet and they were talking about that. It was really exciting,” Santorico said. “They absolutely loved it. The drawings were incredible and the fact that the little girl in the book looked like their classmate Elsa, they thought that was really cute.”

Locke’s approach to “Vote For Turtle” emphasizes a cycle that kids are used to in schools. It shows that if you have an idea, then from that idea you do research, and then you take action which strengthened the connection to the book for the kids. The author chose a turtle as such a key symbol in her book because, to her, they’re “a symbol of resilience and persistence. They move at their own pace toward their destination, and they just have to keep going if they want to make it.”  

“That’s the core of what our democracy is. It’s civics, legislation, and the electoral process. If they can understand that from an early age, I think they’re more apt to be engaged adults,” Locke said.

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