Ben Hartnell The Beard
BEN HARTNELL: Inspiring the next generation of politically active citizens
Talking about American democracy has never been a passive act for Ohio high school teacher Ben Hartnell. He takes history seriously.
In 2016, he tried to make history himself by running for U.S. president as an official write-in candidate in 25 states.
Hartnell surprised himself, and his students, when what started as a teachable moment became a grassroots movement. Once results were tallied, he’d earned more than 720 popular votes with just a $300 budget.
He had a running mate, a slogan (“Elect the Beard”) and a website. He used electthebeard.comto post public polls on a variety of issues, then used the results to create his platform—and to foster class discussions.
Support for the bearded teacher swelled as word spread through local news stories and social media sharing. Fellow educators used his campaign to start dialogue in their own classrooms.
While many Americans felt disengaged by negativity during the election, the students of Westerville North High School outside Columbus—and many people in the community—became enthralled by learning about the process and seeing the power of their fellow citizens firsthand.
Hartnell said he hopes the experience will inspire some students to go into public office, or at least show them that everyone—not just those at the top of the two major parties—can make an impact.
“At what point did we stop believing that a local person could run for president?” he said. And why do some states continue to prohibit write-in candidates, he has asked. The question spurred a Hartnell supporter in South Carolina to rally her local lawmakers. And now the judiciary committee there is going to begin the process of repealing the 50-year-old law.
A classroom campaign and a single supporter could overturn a state law. Think about that, he tells his students.
“Your voice does matter. You are the next wave to become politically active,” he said. “If we want things to change, it has to start with you.”
At Westerville North, where he’s worked for 16 years, Hartnell wears a costume almost every day. He starts each class by projecting custom “This Day in History” slides on his wall, and he runs elaborate re-enactment activities, from the Civil War Water Balloon Battle to the “horrific medieval torture lecture.”
The colorful theatrics are just the bait, he said, to capture the imagination of teenagers.
“The goal is not just to get them pumped up about history but to show them, whatever you end up doing in life, be passionate about it and come to work ready to do it,” said Hartnell, a graduate of the MSU Teacher Preparation Program. He borrowed his class motto, Chase It, from the Spartan football team and many of his classroom antics from his former MSU mentor teacher, Jerry Gillett.
“I try to show my students that everything is a very powerful story, and that their story in high school creates one big fabric that is the American story.”
History teacher, Westerville North High School
College of Social Science, 2000, College of Education, 2001