Saturday was a pretty bad day. I was in a pretty crummy mood despite spending the morning selling Girl Scout cookies with my troop. Normally, engaging with young leaders within the community picks me up. But not on Saturday. Why?
I read the headlines.
For months, I have been paranoid. Paranoid that my students are not safe engaging in political discussions; paranoid that my instruction of government content would irk some parents or the public. My paranoia over the tenor of contemporary politics has largely been met with a blasé response from peers in education. I really hoped that it was just me who was being overly cautious and, well... paranoid.
I am no 'veteran' of politics; no resident expert. What I am is the front line. I sit and interface with young adults on a daily basis about politics and government. These days, it's really hard.
My students are becoming politically aware during a time in which the very act of talking is risky. In order to be ready for the AP Exam in May, we have to talk. We talk about tax policy, the rise of the National Security and Social Service State. We talk about critical de-alignment and realignment elections, the evolution and revolution within political parties. We talk about the national debt and policy solutions that directly or indirectly combat these issues. We talk about civil rights and liberties.
Normally, talking about these issues in my classroom is compelling, but manageable. Kids have predictable questions and reactions to concepts like policy brutality, gun rights, and terrorism. Kids are also passionate. The nice thing has always been that we can talk about it. Kids come to class and we examine these issues using 'reliable' sources who evaluate these policies from a partisan, yet academic perspective. We learn to advocate for policy change using data, not emotion.
But it's getting hard. Civility is hard to come by these days as passions are very high. These passions have a place in the classroom. We should talk and listen and feel. We should hear what each other has to say so that we can seek understanding and compromise. (I have always said, there are no clear cut winners and losers in policy; everyone has to give something up so that the policy can come into existence). Carzy enough, even the fundamental discussion over the importance of academia and data-driven argumentation is politically charged. While academics and pop stars debate whether or not the world is round on Twitter, both sides are drawing lines in the sand with language that is meant to label and demean each other. Using "us vs them" language makes the middle ground a no-mans land.
And here I am, stuck in the middle.
The rhetoric and the discord is growing, and it is already here in our schools. For the first time in the fifteen years of my professional career, I have had to tell my kids to remember that we are debating ideas. That the people we disagree with are people; equally entitled to our own opinions. That we can only move forward by patiently and respectfully talking. We may need breaks, we may need to work to remember why we are the community we are. Finally, sometimes the most viable solutions are somewhere in that now barren middle ground.
While I have these conversations, I am nervous. It's silly, I know. I should have nothing to fear. Yet, our kids' access to these very public, political discussions (and I am talking about all kids, not just high school aged kids) is influencing them to talk and not listen.
I may be paranoid, but I don't want to get to the point where we cannot talk. That middle ground is a very lonely, bleak reality that these kids have read about in their distopian novels. Yet our solution, to remedy speech we don't like with more speech, it's getting really risky.
I will keep engaging my community, selling cookies and volunteering... hoping that actions prompt speech. That kind of conversation is something I can toast my milk (and cookies) to.
The state that is first in the nation's presidential nomination cycle has indicated their preference, leaving all good government teachers scrambling in its wake.
The quality of resources is amazing, if not contradictory or confusing at times. With a record breaking or near record breaking turn out, I must discuss the relevance of this event. Unfortunately, in my year-long class we have already discussed elections. Additionally, I am BEHIND due to #Snowzilla. So, I have five to ten minutes to discuss the importance of this event. Here is how I did it; it's not pretty but it gets the job done. That slide show is made to be shared!
Additionally, I really love the following resources to help add interest to my discussion.
On Wednesday of this week, I popped into one of my classes excited to do an end of the year tradition with my kids; one that occurs in the midst of senior exams when kids need to blow off steam.
With foursquare ball in hand, and an enthusiasm that belies my knowledge of the misery waiting for me outside (78 degree with 70% humidity weather in jeans), I am ready for some juvenile fun.
But my students are not.
Casually sprinkled across desks with the self assurance that only comes from students who know I can inflict no more pain upon them, they are lost in conversation over their yearbooks. These huge manuals on school year 2014-15, blinged out in the gold and white and black of our school colors, are spread open to be personalized with promises of continued friendship and commemorations of inside jokes.
I love it.
But my kids talk is not idle. It is not mundane. It is not of weekends, beaches, work, and college.
It is of the latest STORY. One that happened on the heels of our Civil Rights DBQ-nit, of which we have debriefed and moved on out of.
"Section 8 housing," "cop," and "fourteen year old black girl," swirl around the edges of their conversation as I adjust to the room.
Oh, we are talking about this. The very class that groaned while we trudged through the early days of this unit can't seem to let it go.
It is 3:30. I am driving home, and the anxiety building up in my body is palpable. Instead of picking my children up from school and passing seamlessly into the role of mom, I am panicking over my past seven and a half hours.
You see, I am teaching my civil rights unit.
I'll start with the obvious context. I am white. I am female. I am privileged. I teach in a school that is slowly transitioning in demographics towards a more diverse population, yet we are still privileged. I teach in one of the best ranked public school districts in America.
But I remember my own intellectual curiosity as a child, a student, a young adult. My own life in the 99.99% white suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. How diversity was marked by referencing which regions of Europe from whence our fore fathers hailed. How I have realized that my childhood, dubbed "the land of 2% white milk" by a high school friend, was no accident; instead it was the culmination of forces beyond my ability to perceive at the time. (Ironically, when I return home to Cleveland, I do not see this racial segregation any more. In 1999, I found out in my Cleveland State University urban planning class that Cleveland, Ohio was in the top five most racially segregated cities for much of my childhood. At least that is what my professor told me.)
My sense of confusion and frustration as to why the reconstruction perpetuated for so long as my Civil War-crazed father dragged my family from east coast battlefield to east coast battlefield over a five-year stretch of my childhood. My first true sustained interaction with African Americans came when my aunts adopted African American and biracial babies in the mid-90s. I often wondered just why is it that there was (I mean is) such a great divide in my childhood between the races. And this lead to the ultimate question I could never answer: What do I do about it?
These thoughts have turned to something beyond an academic curiosity. It has driven much of my own personal research, and a lot of what I teach. My obsession with the Fourteenth Amendment, my fascination with voting practices in America...
This is why I feel compelled to address the elephant in the room this year. Ferguson. New York City. Cleveland. South Carolina. Baltimore. All of these civil rights protests that are popping up all over the country.
But, let me tell you. This is not a unit for the faint of heart. We talk about things in here that will make people uncomfortable. I teach with a slight sense of terror the whole time, hoping I adequately straddle the line between adequate historical context and genuine dialogue. But an err for caution lands me into an academic discussion that doesn't broach the real world. Not heeding appropriate caution can violate the trust of my students, offend the community, and land me in trouble.
Oh. The stress.
So, I am thinking about the things we discussed in the beginning of my civil rights unit that are controversial and inflammatory, as my students and I identified all of the awful stereotypes my students have seen in school, and the even more despicable stereotypes and racial epithets they have witnessed on the Internet over the past year in particular.
We take this discussion, the prejudiced perceptions of what life is like in city centers like Baltimore, DC, and Ferguson... and we put this in context with an investigative report that WAMU came out with just this week. One that highlights the great racial disparity in felony arrests for assaulting a police officer; a statute that makes getting out of your car to tell the police your girlfriend is pregnant lands you in jail. A statute that finds 90% of the arrested on this charge are African American when that population constitutes only 50% of DC's population. We then roll through over thirty documents, including articles, letters, poems, movies, audio files, and interactive maps. We talk substantive and procedural due process, and the incorporation process. We go state and local, as well as federal. We look at history and current events. It is a whirlwind, and it is controversial. All the while, I am nervous.
I broach these discussions to show my students that racial epithets and prejudices are often rooted in a government policy. For instance, the exclusion of agriculture in the initial Social Security Act kept African Americans from enjoying retirement with security. Housing projects jointly funded by all levels of government funneled African Americans into urban blight and crime while whites placed restrictive covenants into the deeds of their white suburbs. The perception of ghettos as dirty and run-down; in part due to the lack of municipal services offered to citizens who live in these areas. Red-lining by banks to keep African Americans out of white areas compounded by block busting when a family did sneak in... all of these things forced white flight... and now that property values are so low, and African American wealth is at 5% (Wow!) of that of their white counterparts... we are looking at gentrification of these neighborhoods. So these epithets, who benefits from them? Who causes them? How do we fix them? (And I don't really even go into incarceration, welfare, food, and education in inner-city neighborhoods... food deserts, malnutrition, free and reduced lunch, food stamps, welfare... Oh, it's too complex.)
Kids are listening, skipping pre-planned dismissals to classes offered off the campus. Students are asking to come in and attend a class that they are not technically supposed to. Skipping their own lunch to join us.
A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me how to get her students to follow current events. I guess she asked me because she assumed that I talk current events in my class, which I do... but I do not spend a lot of time asking my kids to regularly read the news.
I think I am ready to change that. There are a lot of different ways to get your kids involved in current events, so here are some suggestions.
Flipboard has been around for a while. My friend used this suggestion with her APUSH class, and says that it is a pretty good way to get kids to read articles she finds on the web.
I decided I was going to create a bunch of magazines (LovGov's Politicool Spot, Teacher Toolkit, and World Our-Story.)
Flipboard is a website and an app you can install on android and iOS devices. It presents content like a magazine on your mobile devices, where you can flip through the pages and read it like traditional print media. You can share stories via social media, as well as import your Facebook and Twitter feeds as a magazine.
Any URL can be captured and placed as a story in your feed, and you can either allow public viewing or editing. It's a pretty great way to get news in a user-friendly format.
This is superior to what I do now, which is share links on Facebook and Twitter. Those can be painful to go back and read. People can also comment on the article (which may be helpful for assigned readings to allow students to respond for participation points). When you flip your article into Flipboard, you can comment on the article to make connections to major content.
If differentiation and assessments are your game, consider Newsela.
You can get this as free service or pay for an upgrade with Newsela Pro, but this site helps you assign and differentiate the same article for different reading levels and assess their comprehension through assessments. Pretty cool. There are even weekly current events quizzes created for you to keep track of what your students are doing.
Student News Daily
Another service that curates articles on current events, the SNP formats their website to replicate the various pages of the newspaper. Students get an opportunity to take weekly tests based on the readings. SNP also offers an app as well as free resources on teaching media literacy.
Pew Research Center's News IQ Test
Have your student compare their current events knowledge to a periodic national survey with this short test. Afterwards, they can learn more about what the nation knows in an informative analysis of our collective knowledge.
NYT & WAPO Programs
More free resources for your classroom are available on the New York Times' Learning Network and the Washington Post's Newspaper in Education programs that curate articles as well as offer resources for teaching media literacy and current events.
Tackling media literacy is a bigger issue. I have the luxury of taking my kids to the Newseum once a year to have classroom instruction on bias, newsworthiness, and ethics. If you are visiting DC, this is always a hit with my seniors. If you are not, checkout their digital classrooms resources. I especially like their NHD collection; what a great resource for kids doing NHD! There are other organizations that are out there that tackle these issues.
The News Literacy Project is a great resource in education, and they are working on many different resources. Digital workshops, student programs and classroom workshops are all great resources that bring journalists to you; they may require you seeking out a grant. But, you get real journalists and experts from the field tackling these issues. This may appeal to folks who also teach courses in School Newspaper and the like. The NLP also has a teachable moment blog, where the experts sit down and analyze some aspect of reporting through the lens of current events.
There are a ton of great resources out there to help get kids involved with current events. Here are a few of my favorites:
NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me
NPR's On the Media
There are a few yearly events in DC that capture the attention of the general public and the political insiders inside the beltway; one such barn burner is the State of the Union address, kind of like a Superbowl for DC. A lucky few sit in the Capitol to hear the speech live, another few will hang out at the White House for a #SOTUSocial. The slick political stratosphere associated with the Hill and the White House may tuck themselves into various establishments to watch and comment on the President's speech (and the rebuttal of the party out of power) after prepping their bosses is over (and they even make games out of it...), but most Americans watch from home. There are various ways to enjoy these events... from the comfort of your own home, over a cup of tea. Let's check out the best of the web experience. (Special shout out to my friends who meet Sunday nights @ 9pm on Twitter to have a #hsgovchat.)
Before the SOTU
During and After the SOTU
Needless to say, there is a lot of great information out there to help you with this awesome day. See you all online at 9 pm on Tuesday!
Since this is an evolving story, I have thrown together some resources I am using in my classroom today to talk about the Michael Brown case. I have questions I intend to answer with each linked resource. Pulled from educator chats on Twitter.
After we finish pouring over the evidence, we talk about this case's failure to return an indictment, as well as the state of race relations in America. The evaluation of race relations is triangulated from multiple facets: cultural, historical, socio-economic, and criminal.
Good luck, folks. This is a tough, emotional issue. But not discussing reinforces our own perceptions.
The Senatorial election here in Virginia was a close race, if you recall. Less than 16,000 voters separated incumbent Mark Warner (D) from Ed Gillespie (R). The campaigns were remarkably different; with different expectations from the party base to campaign resources. Yet, the average voter was largely unaware of the strategies and stress of the election.
Enter the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). This non-profit was formed to specifically track campaign financing for national, state, and local elections in Virginia. They also host public round table discussions that review campaigns.
On Veterans Day, VPAP and George Mason University invited the public to listen to David Hallock of the Mark Warner campaign and Paul Logan of the Ed Gillespie campaign talk about the 2014 Senate election. This event, called After Virginia Votes, was moderated by GMU School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs Dean Mark Rozell.
What was shared was an interesting discussion of how campaigns, parties, voters, and special interest are shaping the government of our country. These linkage institutions have fundamentally shaped electoral results, policy agendas, and governance. So, let's go local and take a look at elections up close and personal.
1. Campaign Finance: In keeping with the trend that the candidate who spends the most wins between 80 - 90% of the time, Mark Warner outspent Ed Gillespie. In this case, Warner outspent Gillespie 2 to 1. Gillespie's campaign did not have the depth, and a strategy to sit on the money until the late summer/early fall was discussed. Despite this decision to spend conservatively and hold onto resources Logan recanted how the Gillespie campaign had to correct misconceptions that the campaign was broke in mid-October. These misconception caused some new outlets to speculate about mismanagement of funds or inability to capture voter's attention in the eleventh hour.
2. Outside spending: Particularly fascinating here was Hallock's perspective. He acknowledged that outside spending can be problematic to the campaign. Primarily, the campaign is not able to control their own message or tactical decisions in the campaign. Even if an outside group is supportive of your campaign, they have their own interest and may distort or spin factual information in such a way that their favored candidate has to respond to clarify the message. This can change the focus of an election.
3. Advertising and outreach to base: Each campaign used different campaign tactics to mobilize their base and reach the median voter.
Gillespie worked with limited funding. Starting with the nominating convention, Gillespie worked hard to present himself to the party organization and the party in the electorate to win over voters one by one. He specifically wanted to create a "volunteer army."His personal touch, asking each member of the party organization at the Republican Convention for their vote, was reiterated in later tactics in the election.
The Gillespie campaign believed that more substance was necessary in order to win. An anti-incumbent sentiment would not get Ed into office, the campaign had to be specific in their platform. Gillespie would take time to have weekly tele-conferences with local committees and even moderate voters. He would field questions on his campaign and platform from those participating in the tele-conference while he traveled from campaign stop to campaign stop.
Gillespie also hired a social media guru to work on his social media presence as much as possible, though specific tactics were not discussed at the discussion.
Warner had more funding, and used that money to hire much more sophisticated electorate modeling services used by the Obama campaigns. He specifically spent $3M to hire Civis Analytics, who helped sort through voting data to come up with a road map for the campaign. Warner knew he had to overcome obstacles in being an incumbent, in mobilizing the Democrat base, which is notoriously unresponsive in off-year elections.
Warner also used micro-targeting, specifically with the addressable advertising technology. Here, candidates can pay to send advertisements to targeted cable boxes based on collected subscriber information. This means that commercials seen during live TV may vary from house to house, based on what you are watching and your entire watching history. Yes, the cable companies know what you like to watch, and they even know what that if you watch The Big Bang Theory, you tend to be a republican. Enjoy that one.
Couple this with the idea of using technology like that used in Shazam to listen to the advertisements on television so that your smartphone can sync up and enhance your experience... without your permission. You do have a comeback: the 'old' (meaning circa 2012) technology in SuperPAC app or Ad Hawk, which helps you discern who is paying for the ads while they air. So, yay for you.
4. Campaign Ads: Both sides were asked to mention the most effective ad their opponent ran.
The Warner camp did not like this ad. They stated it was misleading (included confirmation votes, procedural votes, etc.) but was effective. The Gillespie campaign really wanted Warner to campaign on his time as a Senator instead of as a Governor, and knew that it would make him an unpopular incumbent.
The Warner camp honed in on Gillespie's work as a political insider and his former experience in working with Enron. The Warner camp was surprised this ad did as well as it did; they were not sure the American public would recall the Enron scandal.
5. Outside impacts: Frank discussions were had about the impact of the Bob McDonnell trial (which sucked up all the oxygen in VA politics throughout the summer), the mark of Obama on Warner (there was work to show Warner as a separate entity, a 'radical centrist' or 'bipartisan problem solver': Obama's unpopularity polled at 58% in exit polls, yet Warner's approval rating was 56%), the chaos in the Cantor loss and how it impacted the seventh district (more a tea party factional issue), and finally that of Libertarian Robert Sarvis (Not sure impacted Republicans; many of his voters may not have voted if Sarvis wasn't on the ballot. He did hemorrhage support, polling at 7% of the vote going into the election, and only got 2%). It would have been even more fascinating if Sarvis's campaign was there to field some of these questions. This is, after all, the second office he has campaigned for in as many years.
I was probably most shocked by some of the questions from the audience. One gentleman wanted a instant run-off ballot instituted in Virginia to minimize the impact of independent parties. I found this hilarious given that the very nature of the nomination process in Virginia is rather controversial. Kicking voters out to preserve two party rule? Really?
Couple this with the inquiry on the impact of Voter IDs in Virginia and Hallock's belief in the need of a no-excuse absentee ballot, and you have an interesting discussion. Folks from all parties and all levels of interest were involved.
If you are interested in learning a bit more for yourself, listen in at the VPAP website.
Yesterday, I spent the morning thinking about campaign finance at an open door meeting of experts.
Note: I am not an expert, and rolling into this meeting was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences of my recent life. I slid in the door and prayed no one asked me any questions about what I do for a living for I was feeling slightly inadequate in this room of professionals. (I do love how my husband pointed out to me over lunch at Pershing Park that I do have a noble profession. Most days, I feel like teacher-approval ratings are marginally higher than those of Congress)
It was GOOD to be out of the classroom, to think about this topic among experts... including Ellen Miller, the founder of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics (@EllnMllr on Twitter)... Senator Jon Tester of Montana (@jontester on Twitter)... Tom Hamburger, investigative reporter on money and politics from WaPo (@thamburger on Twitter)... Robert Maguire, a political nonprofit investigator from the Center for Responsive Politics (@RobertMaguire_ on Twitter)... and Emily Peterson-Cassin, project coordinator for the Bright Lines Project... and many, many others.
By now, you know the hub-bub on the street about Hobby Lobby. This has become a major rallying point around women's rights and access to healthcare... the justice or injustice of men deciding for women that no, women cannot.
There are a lot of politics around that fact, and I want to skirt the issue entirely because there is something else that is way more frustrating to me.
So, let's rap.
Can a corporation be a person?
In April, my students briefed this case.
We worked on the essential question in this case. Can a corporation reserve essential rights as an extension of an individual owner?
On first blush, we considered the justiciability of this case: Is this something political, and thus left to the legislative and executive branches, or is this an essential question that needs to be examined by the courts.
I, for one, thought that this issue would go no further than whether or not Hobby Lobby could be considered a "person." It is definitely a justiciable question, but one that seemed to be so comical, that not much would be examined.
I mean, a person, right? We have talked about personhood in the past, and it is the heady talk of US History classes... are women, blacks, Native Americans... are they people? Is voting democratic enough when the very act of who votes is meant to be representative, as it was in the 1790s... Sure, and our history is the tenuous, deadly story of how this all came to be... a "more" democratic nation. Where every man, woman... and corporation has a vote. Oh, hold the phone.
So, Hobby Lobby is a person. Well, I hope Justice Scalia is ready to have the streets packed with people every time we talk about this issue, because he just shot his own reverred dissent in Webster right in the balls of its feet.
Justice Alito called this a "closely held corporation," or one that is controlled by a small number or one individual. Meaning, it is not publicly traded. So, here is Hobby Lobby... and yes, they are closely held. They are owned by the Green family, who are evangelical Christians.
Additionally, Alito goes on to say that individuals who want to by entrepreneurs should not have to give up their religious rights, because this puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Futhermore, the definition of a person, in this case it being counter-intuitive (as 75% of my students pointed out... and I use that anecdotally in that it is not a logical definition of personhood, on its face), is much vaguer than the average person understands it to be.
Here, according to the Hobby Lobby decision, a person under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (states the Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion) and Federal Dictionary Act (1871), is defined broadly to "include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.”
And once a person's essential rights (i.e., those under the First Amendment) are infringed... in this case the free exercise clause of the First... then the courts have to observe the law to make sure that it passes the strict scrutiny test.
And here, I believe had the Catholic Church and any of their schools or hospitals been forced to offer birth control in their health insurance policies, the government would have failed the strict scrutiny test. Flat out.
But we are not talking about a church, a religious non-profit organization.
We are talking about a business that sells model trains, silk flowers, and candles.
Yes, they pay well above minimum wage. Yes, they give Sundays off. But that is great for single moms who are not Christian. Single moms who may sell trinkets because they need family time, and a livable wage... which let's be real. That is better employment opportunity than Michaels and Total Crafts, let alone McDonalds.
But now we're getting into the politics of the decision, and I don't want to go there. I want to talk about how Supreme Court decisions work.
Precedence has been established
Folks, here is where it gets funky.
The Supreme Court arbitrates cases generally, and almost always to apply to all similar cases. They don't hear cases exclusively, where the decision only effects an individual scenario or petitioner/respondent (with the exception of Bush v Gore, but even that is debatable.)
Even if Alito in the majority opinion narrowly tailored this to apply to birth control... even if Kennedy said it is just this one time... that is not how cases run. This will be cited in some case in the future where corporations (in which often the owners, whether they be publicly or privately held, often are not legally liable as individuals for nefarious actions taken by companies) are looking for more rights. Looking to be able to discriminate like individuals, looking to be choosy in hiring practices, insurance, INFLUENCE ON ELECTIONS, etc.
This is what bothers me.
Look, on its face. A person is a human. Period. I look back at the debates before the Constitutional Convention, where personhood was indeed debated, and George Mason and Governor Morris did not espouse on how down-trodden the corporation was in not being allowed to have essential rights. I did not see evidence of Thaddeus Stevens taking up the mantle of the Sears of the day and say that they should have freedom of speech.
As a matter of fact, turn-of-the-century America saw the exclusion of corporations, unions, etc. from having these essential rights in laws that outlawed corporate influence on elections. We saw limitations from the courts in Heart of Atlanta to curtail business practices that could be defined as freedom of expression.
So, why this sudden concern for keeping corporations at a competitive advantage, when this has not been the historical precedent?
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan