It's July Fourth. In the midst of the flag waving, the baton twirling, the pageantry of the parade, and the sonic booms of fireworks I do know that tomorrow is AP Exam Score day.
I am going to tell you a little secret. I am part dread and part glee. I know my kids worked their butts off this year. I fell really good about the work we did this year. I know this in spite of tweets from College Board that the scores were not as good as last year. I still feel good.
But then again, I don't. There was that tweet from Trevor Packer.
And I know I felt this way last year, too. And I am really nervous about those AP test questions. I have ran into quite a few scorers who told me that College Board was not accepting things that we all felt they should (especially on the Supreme Court, which was Q1.) So, again. I am nervous and gleeful at the same time. I figure there is no time like the present to quickly talk about how to receive your scores.
What did I actually contribute this year?
Start with what you did. It doesn't have to be an elaborate reflective essay about the things you did well, but you should be able to point out what were things that made your class different from the experiences of the 23,900 other students nationwide. I think it is important to think critically before and after about your strongest suits as a teacher. The units you did well, your classroom organization, the time you spent reviewing, how you teach FRQs, how you established relationships with students and got them over the hump, your pregame breakfast and Team AP Gov teach-shirts you made your kids wear. The field trips, the review sessions.
This is what you can amplify. Then think critically about what you can improve in this hodge-podge.
Sometimes you may know with precision what works and what does not, you have those exit interviews and letters of thanks and surveys to help you. You have test scores. You have anecdotal moments where you know a kid got the content.
Now, remember something critical. This is what every single other teacher out there in governerdland could control. In reality, it's not a lot. Don't believe me? Let's think about what you can't control.
What did others contribute this year?
Here is just a short list of things that you had to overcome. I know that there are some things we can all try to influence, but let's be honest. This is all beyond our explicit control. And one more thing: The list is not all inclusive.
I mean, let's be real. This list could get a lot longer. If you are so inclined, keep adding.
But at the end of the day, when folks start popping off about how well or not well their kids did, I just want you to remember that any progress you have should be done in the shadow of a 49% pass rate and a confluence of factors external to your classroom. You have NO IDEA WHAT THEIR CLASSROOM WAS LIKE THIS YEAR. Successful or not tomorrow, swing back around to what you did. Where are your victories? What can you fix? And be proud of your hard work. It's an art, and you have just finished one masterpiece, with many more to come.
Happy Fourth of July.
That big, white FedEx box. People who apply for things like college, jobs, awards, and other opportunities know what the thick box means when it arrives on your doorstep. No denial of opportunity is going to result in the mailing of a significant mass. A big envelope, or in this case, a FedEx box, means amazing things. When this box arrived at my house, it brought much excitement, a little bit of nervousness, and a life-changing opportunity. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Meet the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation
A few years ago, I was hanging out at James Madison's Montpelier... the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution to be exact. (SPOILER: The Robert H. Smith Center at James Madison's Montpelier is not the same organization as the James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation, though both are out of Virginia.) It was a sweet little weekend retreat where teachers would gather to talk about the Constitution. I met a bunch of really fun and dedicated teachers, and through them I learned about a whole bunch of really amazing things (like the We The People Competitions).
Anyways, we made friends on Facebook and a few months later one of these people was awarded the JMMFF Fellowship for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The JMMFF is a competitive scholarship program for teachers or teachers in training to complete a Master's in either American History or Political Science, with a strong focus on studying the Constitution. My friend posted a picture of his FedEx box, and he received a ton of congrats from some other JMMFF recipients. I was flabbergasted that there was an organization out there investing in the education of America's civics educators. In this case it was Congress. The JMMFF was created in 1986 through a bill introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy in order to commemorate the bicentennial of the US Constitution. Signed into law on October 30th, 1986 by Ronald Reagan as PL 99-591, this executive agency's mission is to administer a foundation that encourages social studies teachers to study the Constitution as a graduate student. Fun fact! This program is fully funded today because of that one-time federal investment back in the 80s, and continual outside donations from civically-minded investors.
I was incredibly intrigued at the prospect of going back to graduate school - I have always dreamed of getting my Masters, possibly my PhD in Political Science. I did some more research into the organization. In a nutshell, JMMFF awards fellowships of $24K to one teacher per state (and sometimes two, depending on the nature of donations). There are fellowships for experienced teachers and individuals who want to get into the profession. The fellowships are given exchange for service in education. You must teach for as many years as you accept monies from JMMFF. The fellowship cover Master's in American History or Political Science, but you must take 12 credits that examine the Constitution. Of these twelve credits, recipients MUST attend a one-month, 6 credit course at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (Yeah, if you can't do this, I would avoid signing up until you can.)
I applied. Twice. It took several tries because this is a competitive fellowship. The first year I did not get it, I was pretty crushed. I thought I was a strong candidate, I had the knowledge and gusto to finish this awesome program. In retrospect, there were some flaws in my application. Here is what I would suggest:
Getting that award!
When that FedEx box comes in the mail in April, it's pretty exciting. You know before you open it that you got the award. It's pretty exciting, but also unnerving. I was a bit stressed about committing to JMMF. I was scared that I would not finish (I have three kids who are school age and incredibly active, as well as an awesome husband who is supportive, but man... back to graduate school? My first Masters was a stresser for he and I, and I did not have kids at the time. And my first Masters was in education, which is NOT the same thing as this program.) And yes, if you do not finish your program, you MUST pay back JMMFF. They really do not like when this happens, because who would want it to happen? You do have to finish in five years, so you have to know yourself and your ability to commit.
There are so many things to consider...
Long story short! I still did it!
In the end, I signed on the dotted line. I have been thrilled thus far, and have enjoyed so much of my experience. In a short period of time, I narrowed my school selection down to Virginia Tech's online Masters in Political Science. I love the flexibility and the rigor of the courses, and I am obsessed with studying Political Science. With small kids, I decided I did not want to be away from home on week nights. I spend my Saturdays and Sundays at Starbucks doing school work. I have a thesis, but it is a challenge I have accepted. I did look at Ashland University's MAHG program, but decided against it after talking to a local University, as I may want to finish my PhD. That local university said they would not accept credits from Ashland. My understanding is that fellows on the PhD track have successfully transferred after completing their Masters at Ashland. It just did not work in my case. More than half of the fellows in my class are from Ashland, I was so impressed with their knowledge. It is a fabulous institution - I do recommend checking it out.
The Summer Institute was amazing. We did so much more than the above pictures show. Yes, we were in class for six hours a day. Yes, you should read before you arrive (There were like six big books to read, they were intense!) But we were on C-Span due to Dr. Jeffry Morrison's lecture on Religion and the American Revolution lecture went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Montpelier, Monticello, Gunston Hall, and Mount Vernon. We toured the Supreme Court and met Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Former Secretary of Education John King, Senators Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Dr. Jack Warren of the Society of the Cincinnati, Dr. Stephen Knott, Dr. Gordon Lloyd, Justice Royce Lambert, Dr. Rosemary Zagarri, and the wonderful instructional staff of Drs. Kevin Hardwick, Terri Halperin, Jeffry Morrison, and Daniel Dreisbach. The staff is amazing and the opportunity is astounding.
At the end of the day, I am so very happy I did this. It is a lot of effort, but I can tell you that my instruction in my classroom has improved exponentially. The community of fellows that you come to know is comprised by incredibly passionate, giving, and wise educational leaders from all over our country... We have such diverse experiences and goals, and stay in contact. It's humbling in the presence of these wise, passionate, and dedicated people who want to play a leadership role in American History and Civics education.
Personally, I know so much more about the Constitution and political science because of this experience. It is exciting to both instruct and create knowledge, and the opportunities offered to my students, my community, and myself since my acceptance of the JMMFF are incredible. I believe it is a gift, and love sharing my experience and enthusiasm with others! It is a lot of work and dedication, but well worth it if you are willing to push yourself.
Trayvon Martin’s death five years ago ripped through my classroom. My sociology and government students were completely baffled; they could not understand how a kid who seemed like a student they may encounter in our schools’ hallways could be murdered for walking home alone. My students’ frustration and yearning for context and understanding started a personal dedication in my own classroom. At the end of each year, after all other instruction is over I devote the final month and a half to the study of race relations in America. Key to this unit is a detailed analysis of American history and politics that requires students to examine their conceptions of democratic values such as majority rule, minority rights, rule of law, limited government, equality, and liberty.
Because the discussions of race and class in America today is transectional and relevant, this unit is necessary. I have experienced my own struggles in doing the research, writing, and sometimes even being white and teaching this when I have no relevant life experiences to inform my instruction. I know what I know through text and talk... and talking to my own students (of all races, religions, classes, genders, etc.) has been instructive for myself. These experiences, in turn, influence the unit.
As the narrative has evolved over the past five years, my unit has grown. Originally it examined just the fallout from events like Trayvon and Michael Brown. Responding to my own students’ questions and reflecting on their own level of understanding, I decided to broaden the scope to examine the entirety of identity politics in America. In the summer of 2015, I was introduced to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and Common Core C3 Framework and Inquiry Arc. The framework requirements, particularly the requirement for informed action – and the opportunity for students to share their experiences with the community – was the perfect design for this unit.
My syllabus mirrors language seen in so many other AP Government classes around the country, and it essentially tells my students that this is a college level course, and I expect them to be able to perform on college level assessments, damn it.
But here is the riddle. What is a college-level assessment? I have done some soul searching here, thinking back to what my own experiences as well as what I have come to understand college assessments to be through unscientific research and interviews of college professors.
Factor 1: My Personal College Experience My 100 and 200 level political science, history, sociology, urban planning, and law courses back in the way back when had maybe roughly 2-4 multiple choice tests per semester. There was always at least one research project, and possibly several small position papers or essays. They were largely lecture and discussion based, consisted of reading one textbook. On occasion, I found myself before the dreaded blue book tests that were short answer and essay based. Oh vey. The short answer.
Analysis: The FRQs are reflected in the short answers and essays. I do not remember quizzes, but I do remember vocabulary incorporated into my blue book tests. Multiple choice questions are multiple choice questions, and I remember them being very challenging.
Factor 2: College Professors' Assessment of AP Government Curriculum The back story on this is that when I do not know the answer to something, I ask a college professor. I still retain contacts with one of my college professors (shout out, Snarr), and often have many, many, many questions that I will ask of college professors via email, in-person discussions, and social media. (Do you want to know something really cool? College professors absolutely love random inquiries into their fields, especially when its their expertise or about a book they wrote.) When we get to chatting about selective incorporation, or the mandate theory of elections, or expansions of suffrage, or even about the evolutionary theory of government at play in Afghanistan and Appalachia (breathe here... that was a long list) the professor often asks, "Why do you want to know this?" My answer is frequently, "Oh, it's on the AP Exam." The frequent response is "WHAT? My undergrads don't even learn about this." And it's true. I never, not even once, learned about selective incorporation in my Constitutional Law class. Or any of the above concepts from above.
Analysis: The AP Government and Politics course (which has a reputation of being an "EASY FIVE" in my school) is actually surprisingly NOT easy. In fact, it has the fourth lowest pass rate nationwide. I literally fell out of my seat when I read that.
Factor 3: Making a College Level Course Mass Produce-able It stands to reason that in order for these courses to be assessed reliably and validly, and all kinds of other statistically important concepts I have forgotten but know exist... College Board has to produce a test that can be delivered to the 303,938 students who took the exam in 2015 in early May and assessed by early July. This is a daunting task. In the time of standardized tests, a multiple choice/short answer variant in the form of a free response question format is a logical choice.
Factor 4: This is a Course Populated by High School Students I can't get away from this factor, folks. In my world, I get about 80-120 students who self-enroll. Most of my kids have taken 4 AP courses, but many are taking 4 to 5 courses at the same time. I hear again and again from my students that despite having study halls and intervention time and after school tutoring, my kids just don't have study skills, time management, and core literacy/note taking skills I would expect them to have. Crazy, I know. But it is the truth.
Two years ago, I accepted a position at a new school within my school district. The job offered was to teach AP Government. I had requested for years to teach AP Gov, but seniority constantly found me passed over in favor of more senior and experienced teachers. The opportunity to teach AP Government was exactly what I was looking for, and I gladly accepted.
Not knowing much about my new school and student population, I decided it would be a good time to roll out something I had heard about at Solution Tree training: Standards Based Grading (SBG). Consequently, SBG was also being rolled out in my school districts' elementary schools. As a parent, I really liked the concept of knowing how my own children were doing on skill sets and learning goals. Grades assessed mastery of these goals and skills. Grades now enabled me to look at my own children's work and be able to assess independently of the teacher whether or not my child was learning and progressing. If it helps me as a parent assess mastery, why would a high school student not be able to do this?
The concept of Standards Based Grading is pretty simple. Assessments are grouped by learning goal or target. Students are assessed on these targets, and their grades reflect each of these individual goals in a clear language. Traditional test grades (like 78%) just emphasize a score. It takes considerable effort on the student's part to determine what concepts they did not understand. Even test corrections just isolate learning to individual questions students got wrong, and how to correct that question. It is hard to discern patterns. I feel in love with SBG because the patterns are evident with minimal effort, and kids focus on their knowledge of the course instead of just fixating on their score (although I am not kidding anyone... I know that grades = college, so it is still super important to my students).
Every job has occupational hazards. I have learned in talking on a regular basis to 1300 of my nerdiest peers that one for government teachers is that we like to talk politics. This can be hard even among peers. There is a lot of feverish "typing-and-backspacing-and-retyping-and-double-checking-and-OMG-did-I-come-off-too-strong"-ing going on.
This gets even harder in the classroom. I tell my students all the time ALL THE TIME my opinion is irrelevant; think for yourself; I will challenge all views; I will present all sides; and most importantly what do you think.
I have this class this year that really wants my personal opinion. I get all shy and bashful and awkward...
"No, kids... I'm not important."
"No brainwashing going on!"
"Some __ would say this... while others would say this..."
But these kids, they are relentless.
A discussion the other day centered on what-I-have-no-idea because I was trying to teach, but in essence they were trying to guess who I have voted for in the past.
I interrupted to say, "HEY! LET'S WORRY LESS ABOUT SILLY LITTLE ME AND MORE ABOUT YOU!"
But I caught a snippet of what one kid said about my vote.
"I betcha she is probably ___, but knows too much and so she can't decide how to vote most of the time."
Oh? Am I that transparent?
Why, yes. Yes, I am. (But guess what: We all are.)
So you ask, why is this an occupational hazard?
See, peeps don't like indoctrination in education. Not at all. So I have to be delicate, respectful, and most importantly: balanced. And I respect that. A lot. It teaches compromise to students; after all, cooler heads prevail. Kids dig it because it makes it okay for their ideas to develop and change... to be fluid.
But I have a new occupational hazard. (I will approach carefully.)
I like kids doing democracy. That's lower-case democracy. No, not Democrats, not unless they want to. Same thing for Republicans; not unless you want to. Heck, as long as decorum is in the classroom and we are not being offensive, you can be any party you want. Key. DECORUM. Key. NON-OFFENSIVE. Key. RESPECTFUL.
See, I have a very diverse student population. Kids constantly amaze me with their lives, and I have learned MORE from my students than they have from me. And that diverse population is asked by myself and my school district to participate in politics in ways from old-school canvassing to new-school twitter chats.
Some kids dig it; some don't. But what is making me really sad these days is that I am very nervous to encourage kids to do any and all volunteering, but especially any brand of political volunteering.
Why? Because no one is showing respect these days. Yes, some are worse than others, but from White House pressers to candidates doing other, more disrespectful actions (of which I will not name because what is the point?), I feel like my little government bubble is bursting. In essence, I can't wake up and tell myself my kids are going to like doing democracy, much less be safe.
Not to be all kumbayah, because I respect the fact that we are all entitled to our views. I am not here to tell you not to have them. Particularly, I understand the economic and political forces that are frustrating so much of American culture... The shrinking middle class... the perception that no one is on your side... interestingly enough, this is a perception alive for whites and minorities alike. These are very real problems. However, the signal is lost in the noise. These discussions, bound in facts, that is what makes discourse compelling and influential. (At least for me. Read The Victory Game and you will find personal contact and emotion is what wins votes.) But I take my discourse with a side of data, not dirt. I try to teach my kids the same thing; that personal attacks and rhetological fallacies will kill your argument. Always check yourself before you wreck yourself.
I have been thinking about this a lot. In fact I was lost deep in thought this morning... I found out Diane Rehm, one of my favorite people is retiring, and her reflection on the radio encapsulated so much for me...
Things are different politically in America. I would not be so bold to tell Americans that you are not entitled to your opinion. That is that privilege of an independent mind. However, discourse that is civil... and maybe a bit more of the "typing-and-backspacing-and-retyping-and-double-checking-and-OMG-did-I-come-off-too-strong" would be in order to really examine these issues. If for nothing more than your own kids are watching. And trust me, they know a lot more than you suspect.
The other day, my daughter asked me when I had last written anything on LovGov.
It was an interesting comment from my astute little ten-year-old, seeing that LovGov takes time away from the family. I asked her why she wanted to know, and it seems that she is "proud that [her] mommy cares so much."
Driving into work today, I wondered if I would have time to squeeze in an entry, seeing that I have a million things on my plate. After firing off emails for an hour, I decided I could drop a line to assure readers that there are still good things to come, it just may take me a while. Here is why I am distracted (aside from the usual work/life balance).
New School, New prep(s)
In June, I said goodbye to my family of eight years at a certain high school in Northern Virginia. I was leaving behind great friends who were a bit like family in search of a shorter commute (you'd have to live here to know) and a chance to teach AP Government.
I have landed in a new school, and have found myself challenged with AP Government and US History. Two new preps! US History has been a challenge as I have not taught it in eight years, but I have found a great CT who has been a total asset to my transition and has allowed me to continue to geek out government style.
Switching to AP Government hasn't been that bad. Why? Here's the deal. Yes, there is an accelerated curriculum that is far more rigorous and detailed than Honors. Yes, I have FRQs (free-response questions). Yes, I have to get all of this done by May 10th, 2016. (Trust me, the pacing is the hardest part). But, I have found that if you ask for help, help you shall receive. I have two great co-workers who help me out, as well as two great mentors in Ken Halla and Frank Franz of usgovteducatorsblog.com with whom I periodically chat on Google Hangouts. And to cap it all off, I have the AP Government Facebook Group. Seriously, I couldn't have found a greater support group. I can't get you closer to Ken and Frank, but I can tell you that the Facebook group is a life-saver, just like co-workers and mentors! And these are resources you can use! (Warning: Membership in the FB group requires some proof of your status as an AP Gov teacher.)
Switching to Standards Based Grading
I have also decided to switch to standards-based grading. I was skeptical at first, and have found some self-doubt at time, but the time and effort that goes into restructuring your grading practices to emphasize mastery instead of whatever we call the old-school program is eventually worth it. I feel better about what my kids are learning, particularly in advance of the AP test.
More about that later. I promise.
Advocating for Government Teachers
In short, I have been trying to "lobby" organizations like the American Bar Association, Sunlight Foundation, Virginia Public Access Project, iCivics, and OneVirginia2021 to create materials for the high school government classroom.
Sounds weird, I know. But let me assure you, I am not a self-appointed anything. What I am is someone who listens to my peers and seeks solutions. I love this content, I want to make this content understandable and teachable, and sometimes I find that I need to rely on subject matter experts to do this.
So, I write emails, make connections, and try to bring challenging content in textbooks to these individuals to encourage them to think about using teachers as a way to encourage civic engagement.
It doesn't always work, but I have had some pleasant results that I will have to write about in the future. Another entry for another day. That's two now.
Going to the Big Ball
Humble Brag: I got to present at NCSS this fall! Exciting! I will admit, that was very cool. I did not get to stay the whole time, but it was fun to run into old friends from other PD I attended in the past (Shout out, Trish, a former contributor who has added "Contributing Editor" at Politicolor to her awesome resume! )
I did some work with the National Council of Social Studies to help pilot their C3LC Inquiry Arc framework in a non-Common Core state as best practices. The framework is a great way to add direction and affect to your lessons, and I am proud to say that I use it frequently in my class. Again, more on that later.
I figured that my students take you more seriously when you show them that as a teacher, you make a commitment to civic engagement beyond the classroom. This year, I became an election officer and then a chief election officer for a precinct in my area. It is fascinating work that helps me teach elections, voting, and campaigns a bit better. I highly recommend it... although it is a long day. And one day, I will tell you a story on that, too.
So, now I owe you four stories in the upcoming year on what I have been up to that may (or may not) be informative to something important to you... And with that, I bid you adieu. Lesson planning and grading call this teacher out of the land of the blogosphere.
As you know, I span the gap between two different social media-based digital PLCs. All my peers are cramming for the exam, which happens in two days.
One of my peers on twitter, @ramosclass, has an ab fab review mechanism. Twitter is about being succinct, but we can put photos to convey messages. She calls these photo review cards 'placemats.' What I love about this idea: In one tweet, she is sharing this with other AP GOPO folks to improve instruction, and they are also using media kids themselves are able to access and review. They are so creative, I had to share them out with the rest of my digital PLC crew. Enjoy, Governerds. And thanks to @ramosclass for letting me share this out with the Governerd community.
Y'all know I do a bit of traveling when I can to get some professional development in government. In each case, I have met someone who is passionate about We the People. I am talking impressive, fanatically dedicated educators who firmly believe this program is the way to go.
I have friends who are active in the Virginia We the People program, which is heavily sponsored by the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier. Ross and Alex, I am talking about you. Ross has finally convinced me to do a week-long seminar put on by the ever gracious and infinitely supportive Center, and I intend on leaning into my ever expanding network of awesomeness as I attempt to fly. Ross and Alex will be prominently featured in future discussions of my experience with WTP. I guess there was one other conversation that really did me in for WTP, which brings me to the following introduction.
This spring I met someone who participates as an educator in the program, but also can attest to the experience as a student. She is Trish Everett of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She and I bonded one night over a particularly amazing meal at the King's Arms Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia midway through our Liberty Fund/Ashbrook Center seminar in March of this past year... and I convinced her she had to share this experience out with whomever would listen.
I am so excited to have my second guest writer on LovGov. And with this as the background, I am going to turn it over to Trish.
Why We the People?
I come from good, solid nerd stock. Growing up, I tended to plow through books the way some folks go through tissues. As an adult, I literally wear a pendant with a picture of the US Constitution on it, and have done so every day for the last 3 years or so. But in the ultimate nature-nurture debate, I’ve gotta ask, “How did I get here?” Sure, we had more bookshelves than closets in my childhood home, and my first classroom decoration style was once described as looking like Uncle Sam threw up, but somewhere along the way something must have flipped the switch, directing my enthusiasm toward all things Americana and political. Not everyone can pinpoint the catalyst for their professional aspirations, but I am one of the lucky few.
At the end of 11th grade, I made a decision to take the Competitive Gov/Law class to satisfy my civics graduation requirement, and it changed everything. I already knew I wanted to be a teacher, probably of Social Studies, as my Interdisciplinary American History and Literature class has shown me the year before. But when I got a letter over the summer before my senior year inviting me to the teacher’s house for a BBQ, it occurred to me that this was already unlike any course I had previously encountered. My first memories of the We the People The Citizens and the Constitution Program included the smell of burgers on the grill, on a warm Indiana summer afternoon, sitting on my instructor's driveway with his toddler climbing on my lap, and literally. Drinking. Kool-Aid.
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.