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Lesson Plan: ‘An Ailing Arkansas City Elected an 18-Year-Old Mayor to Turn Things Around’

In this lesson, students will consider what it takes to become an elected official at a young age, and identify a community issue they would tackle if they were mayor.

Credit...Houston Cofield for The New York Times

Featured Article: “An Ailing Arkansas City Elected an 18-Year-Old Mayor to Turn Things Around” by Rick Rojas

Do you hope to run for political office someday? How about becoming mayor of your town or city? What do you think would be the best part of being an elected leader of your community? What do you imagine might be the challenges? What qualities do you possess that would make you an effective leader?

In this lesson, you will meet Jaylen Smith, the 18-year-old mayor of Earle, Ark., and learn what it takes to become an elected official as a teenager. In a Going Further activity, you will identify an issue in your community that you would want to tackle if you were to become mayor, and you’ll create a poster, slogan, jingle or meme to sell your idea to the public.

Recently, we asked students what they would do if they were mayor of their community. Teenagers from around the country responded with a variety of ideas for improving where they live, such as pushing for better nutrition in school lunches, ensuring a supply of clean public water, tackling the issue of gun violence and providing more opportunities for individuals with special needs.

Read some of the comments from students. Then, generate your own list of problems and solutions using these prompts as a guide:

  • What are the biggest issues facing your community?

  • If you were mayor, what problems would you try to solve? Which would you tackle first? Why?

  • What ideas do you have to alleviate these problems? What about creative solutions to them?

Afterward, share your ideas with a partner. Then, discuss together: Would you want to become mayor of your town or city? Do you think you could do a better job than your current elected leaders?

Read the featured article, then answer the following questions:

1. What are some of the challenges facing the small town of Earle, Ark.? What additional things can you learn about the place from the photos and captions featured in the article? In what ways is it similar to your community? How’s it different?

2. The article says that many of the best students at Earle High School leave for college and decide their hometown does not have enough to lure them back. Why did Jaylen Smith decide to stay in Earle after he graduated from high school last spring?

3. What inspired Mr. Smith to run for mayor? What role did his high school student government play in his ambitious decision?

4. What issues did Mr. Smith’s campaign focus on? How do those issues compare with the ones you identified in the warm-up activity?

5. What qualities does Mr. Smith possess to be an effective leader? Share at least three adjectives to describe his personality.

6. Why were some Earle voters skeptical of Mr. Smith’s campaign? Why are some residents, like Charlie Young, 70, who runs a small grocery and convenience store, critical of the young mayor’s supermarket plan?

7. What is your reaction to the article? Does reading about Mr. Smith’s story make you more interested in political life and running for office? “You have to have the knowledge,” Mr. Smith said. “You have to have the character. You have to be disciplined.” What qualities do you have that you think might help you be an effective political leader?

The article ends:

“There’s this Bible verse that I always use,” Mr. Smith said, paraphrasing a line from the Book of Habakkuk that had propelled his campaign and drove him now as he mapped out a future for himself and his city: “Write a vision, make it plain.”

His landline rang yet again. “Mayor’s office,” he said.

It’s your turn to write a vision for solving problems in your community. Using Mr. Smith’s story as inspiration, revisit the warm-up activity and choose one issue you identified and develop a plan to fix it as mayor.

Then, create a poster, slogan, jingle, meme, campaign speech or another kind of promotion communicating your political vision.

Think you have a winner? Share it with the mayor’s office in your town or city.

Find more lesson plans and teaching ideas here.