First-graders at Cunningham Park Elementary School recently held a mock election between three fictional characters for Vienna mayor, and got to speak with the real-life mayor herself.
The project-based-learning activity, first implemented three years ago, combines language-arts and social-studies content and gets students thinking about characteristics leaders should have, said first-grade teacher Clara Goldfield.
“I know that this might sound a little bit intense for first-graders, but these children are so much more capable than many adults give them credit for,” she said.
Teachers focused on positive traits such as honesty, kindness and selflessness.
The project kicked off in mid-January with a video interview between the students and Vienna Mayor Linda Colbert. Colbert last May won a three-way race to succeed outgoing Mayor Laurie DiRocco and took office July 1.
Seated in the center of the horseshoe-shaped dais at Vienna Town Hall, Colbert fielded questions from the students and told them Cunningham Park Elementary was special to her because both of her daughters went there.
Colbert told the children about her late parents’ participation on the Town Council. “That was just part of my life,” she said. “I listened to what they did and I saw all of the decisions made in the town.”
Her father, Rodger Seeman, served as a Council member before his death in 1996. Town officials later name the auditorium at the Vienna Community Center after him.
Colbert’s mother, M. Jane Seeman, also served on the Council and nearly had completed 14 years as mayor when she died in 2014.
The family moved to Vienna when Colbert was 2 and she attended Louise Archer Elementary, Thoreau Middle and James Madison High schools.
A former math teacher who still tutors students, Colbert said listening skills honed on those jobs help her connect with constituents. Mayors also must have problem-solving and communication skills, but it’s crucial for them to love the communities they serve, she said.
“I want the best thing for Vienna and I want the best thing for all of the residents – every resident, whether they agree with me or not,” Colbert said. “It’s not about me, it’s about them.”
Students, supervised by Goldfield and fellow first-grade teachers Laura Massaro and Karin Markleyquizzed the mayor about aspects of her job. The youths wanted to know how long people get to be mayor (“If you win, you can do it forever,” Colbert said), how she got the job (“I knocked on doors, I talked to people, I sent letters out and I answered questions”) and how she liked her job (“I love it. I feel very honored”).
Colbert explained the Town Coincil election process, and how town leaders must weigh different needs when voting on a budget. She also held up the gavel she uses to open and close meetings, adding that she has not had to rap it yet to restore order.
After her presentation and the question-and-answer session, the mayor took the students on a “virtual” tour around the Council chamber at Town Hall. (Absent the pandemic, the students would have walked to Town Hall and taken the tour in person.)
Colbert pointed out the chamber’s Virginia state flag, the podium where residents and town staff members testify, and the digital timer that limits residents’ remarks to just three minutes.
Toward the back of the room, the mayor showed the students photos and paintings of former mayors and gestured toward the wall space where DiRocco’s portrait eventually will go. Colbert stopped at Mayor Seeman’s painting and asked the students if they saw any resemblance between her and her mother.
The students later held a simulated election for Vienna mayor and studied the relative merits of three fictional candidates: Max from “Where the Wild Things Are,” Lilly from “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” and Goldilocks from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” They also created campaign posters for their preferred candidate and listened to the perspectives of their classmates. (Lilly won the election.)
One key lesson from the activity: People are complex and have a range of personality traits, Goldfield said.
“There aren’t people – or in this case, characters – who are good or bad,” she said. “This simplistic view of the world doesn’t allow for people to change their behavior or feelings, and to choose kindness.”