I am constantly amazed by the ingenuity of government teachers in this great land of ours. I run into them at PD in my home state of Virginia and abroad. I read what they are gracious enough to share with me on Facebook and on Twitter (and boy, do I get a huge sense of awe). Teachers may feel like we are crushed in the maw of modern culture... yet despite the odds there are amazing classroom experiences and dedicated educators who are crafting educational art.
Recently, a discussion on one of the boards I follow turned to Civil Rights.
The response from Andrew Elliott McBurney (until very recently a government teacher but now an Advanced Academic Specialist for Region 4 Education Service Center in Houston, Texas) blew me away. I love that he really frames the definition of fundamental rights as an evolution, which can be really hard to crystallize. Many cases can be thrown out as an example; Griswold v Connecticut being an easy court case to examine, but there is so much more to explore.
I asked Andrew if he would do me the honor of being my first guest lecturer. He agreed, and I am pleased to share with you his thoughts on teaching Civil Liberties.
Thoughts on Teaching Civil Liberties
Civil Liberties is obviously one of the most important units for Government. The idea that fundamental rights may be held inviolate over the notion of parliamentary supremacy did not originate in the United States, but the United States is the first nation to establish that principle in its Constitution. However, though this was a clear intention of the Founding Fathers and the Framers, based not only on their own writings but on the text of the Constitution itself, the issue has become clouded over time: Which rights are “fundamental” rights? How does the Supreme Court recognize fundamental rights that are not listed? Are there reasonable exceptions to the absolute language used in the Bill of Rights, and if so, what are they and who decides?
Answers to these questions and others like them involve much more than memorizing the Bill of Rights and famous Supreme Court cases. They involve the foundational elements of our system of constitutional law.
The course description for Advanced Placement U.S. Government & Politics states that both Civil Rights and Civil Liberties together will comprise 5 – 15% of the multiple-choice questions on the AP exam. As a result, it is a challenge for a teacher to figure out how best to present those topics, given that relatively little time may be spent on it without compromising the vast majority of the rest of the course.
My last two semesters I tried something fairly unconventional. I think it worked all right for some students, but I’m not sure if I would do it the same way again. Sharing it might be useful for generating ideas. This isn’t a formal write-up of the unit by the way—just those elements that were key or unconventional (or both). My purpose, since there is so little time for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, was to have class discussion be at a higher level, while relying on students to read from the texts at home. Additionally, some of what I taught did not relate directly to the civil liberties content on the AP exam, but, to be honest, I have always considered myself first my students’ Government teacher, and second their AP Government test prep instructor. All told I spent about seven class days on Civil Liberties.
The “Four Freedoms”: Setting the Stage for Individual Rights.
I had posters of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" up in my classroom. (I only recently accepted a position as a specialist. The fall of 2014 was my last semester in the classroom.) I would handout out the relevant excerpt from FDR’s “Four Freedom” speech (January, 1941) and ask the students to read it. Then I would ask them to give me examples of each and began a discussion about rights in that way. I got to the point where I would ask them pointedly about the language used—two of the rights are “freedom of” while the other two are “freedom from.” I would ask them what they thought the significance of that language is. I did not encourage them to draw solid conclusions, because, I said, we would later revisit this issue.
After this beginning, I would continue in a more or less conventional way, with a focus on primary sources, such as the Bill of Rights, of course, as well as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and Federalist No. 84, among others.
Due Process of Law: The Foundation of Our Fundamental Rights. Maybe.
During the unit, I would actually spend a fair amount of classtime focusing on due process of law—both procedural and substantive. I would hand out a sheet of excerpts related to due process of law, including Clause 39 of the Magna Carta, the 5th Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and two quotes—one from Justice Frankfurter and one from Justice Harlan II—describing what due process is. The point here is to get students to see that even Supreme Court justices have different takes on it. On the back were eight fictional scenarios involving procedural due process rights, asking students to decide what is “fair and right and just” (from Justice Frankfurter’s definition).
Then, I had students watch the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (here begins the unconventional part) and respond with a short informal essay about what is “fair and right and just”. We discussed their thoughts. The assignment permits them to reference the episode but they do not have to. Incidentally, if you haven't seen it, the episode is an allegory of McCarthyism.
Then we moved more to substantive due process, and we went back over Justice Harlan II's quote to refresh our memories: “[Due process] is a rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints . . . .” I would show them the Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” with a similar informal short essay assignment with discussion.
After that, we would look at a couple of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion cases, including the core ones, like the Gitlow and Engel. I would use more conventional methods for this.
“Second Bill of Rights”: What are Rights, Exactly?
As we finished the unit, I would give them an abridged copy of FDR’s 1944 State of the Union, otherwise known as his “Second Bill of Rights” speech. There were guided questions that went with this. I would lead the class discussion of it back around to the Four Freedoms with questions about the nature of what rights are or are not. Almost any observation on the part of the students may be challenged.
For example, the idea of health care as a right is almost certain to come up. Usually, there is at least one student, often several, who will make the argument that a “right” cannot compel a service to be performed by others. “What about jury duty?” Pause. “After all, trial by jury has been called a ‘sacred right’ in some documents from the Framers’ time. Unless you meet an exception, you have to show up for jury duty or you can be arrested. Isn’t that compelling a service from others?” “Well, but that’s different.” “Okay, think about for a few minutes. If you’re going to convince anyone, you’ll have to be able to say how it’s different.” And on goes the debate.
There are myriad paths the discussion may take. The primary purpose isn’t to guide students to particular “right” answers for these broad, over-arching questions. The purpose is to get them to think about what they believe and why they believe it.
Over all, it held their attention and I think they got something out of it. If I were still in the classroom, I would likely devote a full two weeks to Civil Liberties, as well as a full two weeks to Civil Rights, and further develop a number of lessons so that they would tie in with the units on institutions, policy-making, and political opinion—probably by reorganizing the lessons into dedicated case studies. But I would definitely continue to bookend Civil Liberties with Roosevelt’s two speeches. They are provocative and help generate excellent discussions.
About Andrew Elliott McBurney
Andrew McBurney is a Texas schoolteacher with over ten years’ classroom experience, and five years’ experience as an instructional specialist. Mr. McBurney received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994 and began his teaching career in the 1995-96 school year. He is certified for life at the secondary level in Social Studies Composite and English Language Arts. He has earned both a law degree from the University of Houston Law Center, and a Masters of Education in Administration and Supervision from the University of Houston-Victoria.
He most recently taught AP U.S. Government & Politics, Dual-Credit Government, and Government at Alief Hastings High School in Houston, Texas, and was a member of his school district’s Social Studies Pre-AP/AP Vertical Team. He is also an adjunct professor at Houston Community College where he teaches American National Government and Texas Government at night.
Through his career, Mr. McBurney has facilitated several professional developments, served on campus technology committees and textbook adoption committees, and participated in campus and district leadership teams. When he has free time, he usually doesn’t know what to do with it, but he often finds himself in state parks, roadside diners, and used book stores.
In January 2015, Mr. McBurney began a new job as the Advanced Academic Specialist at Educational Service Center (Region) 4.
I want to start by thanking Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald for their uncompromising dedication to giving the NSA violations air time and transparency. I wanted to share some of the most important things I have learned from this book bef...
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
by Bill Bishop
tagged: nerdcation and to-read
I lovgov. LOVE IT! I love teaching government, learning about it, debating, discussing, asking questions about government. And not the standard boiler plate questions, but the hard ones that are NOT in the books.