Tag Archives: American Politics

Videos for the Classroom: Election Day on Sesame Street

This was, honest to God, the very first time I ever heard about voting.

When I was a kid, it was shows like Sesame Street that introduced me to a lot of the basics of American life.  This video is still a great one to use with young students who still can’t participate in Election Day.

The best part is when David goes apeshit on Big Bird and Snuffy about voter registration.

Enjoy this classic clip of a great show before it was ruined by Elmo and the big purple dinosaur.

 

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Can iCivics.org make Politics Fun? A Website Review

Who would’ve thought political backstabbing, smear campaigns and pandering to the electorate would be so fun?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice who gasped at last week’s abysmal results in the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card, has lately lent her name and expertise to a new venture designed to get young people more interested in government.

With iCivics.org, we may have found at least the beginnings of a winning formula.

Most of us learned about our government through one, or both, of two methods. The first involved a careful reading of our founding documents, followed by meticulous listing of the powers, checks, balances and responsibilities of each part of our government. The second almost always came in the form of “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes covering the aforementioned founding documents in a zippy soundtrack and crude 1970s animation.

The good news is that it gave a student a pretty good foundation of the structure of our government on paper. Unfortunately, it left out a whole bunch of factors that not only make our democracy fun, but also effective.

I’m pretty sure your teacher never mentioned anything about the K Street lobbyists that encircle the chambers of Congress like vultures on carrion.

How about the backroom deals and handshake contracts that often seal a bill’s fate?

Did he/she mention the ideological mambo that is electoral politics? You know, the quick sashay to the right/left in the primary, followed by the mad dash to the center for the general election?

What about the backstabbing and double-dealing within the President’s cabinet—and a First Lady’s often not-so-secret desire to fire them all?

Perhaps he/she mentioned the constant shifting mood of voters, the need to pander to differing constituencies that probably hate each other, the campaign ads designed not on issues but on making your opponent the spawn of Satan, and the life and death struggle of pollsters and their “representative samples”?

Yeah, never learned any of that in school, neither.

iCivics is designed to appeal to those students who have felt distant or left out of the process of governing. Through lessons, media and especially games, students can get a taste of the murky water that is the reality of American politics. The games are the main focus, as they help enforce lessons in the classroom in a fun way, often with a refreshing honesty.

One game I particularly enjoyed is Represent Me!, where you pretend to be a Congressman, selecting and voting on bills to become law. However, don’t think for a minute you can vote on principle and get away with it. In a refreshing sense of reality, there are meters for each of the different constituencies in your district, and you have to pander to enough of them to get re-elected. By the end, you’ve created your own campaign ad and you see if you get another term.

I voted my conscience, and I got booted. That’s pretty freaking real.

Other games include arguing before the Supreme Court, serving as the President for a term, even guiding immigrants through the citizenship process. iCivics has games that cover the whole gambit of political life in this country. Furthermore, as in the Congress game, they pull few punches when it comes to the less-than-noble realities of politics. They never go whole-hog on the real-deal of Washington, but it gives students an important glimpse into a process rarely covered in textbooks.

It would be nice if some of the games went further, into the seedy underbelly of party politics, primaries, lobbyists, budget battles, etc. Wouldn’t it be fun for kids to cut a backroom deal in the cloakroom before an important vote? Or maybe to court opposing PACs and advocacy groups in order to vote for certain laws that may not benefit your voters? Or even to do “opposition research” on your campaign rival—research that’ll show up on the nightly news and next week’s attack ads?

Many educators would be shocked that I would endorse such a frank discussion of our nation’s government. They would prefer to stay to checks and balances and “I’m Just a Bill” and let our students keep believing that our system works exactly the way it should.

In a different setting, this may work. It just doesn’t work with kids who are already knee-deep in the bullshit of government.

One huge assumption that I had to overcome with students is that they have an innate sense of acquiescence to authority. To a middle-class kid like me, the government and the Constitution was as holy as the Vatican. They were both made of marble, both have old people at the helm, and both have complicated rules and consequences. It wasn’t until my older years that the picture-perfect vision of our democracy was clouded by reality.

The populations I serve, as those of many other teachers, are under no such illusions.

Many already have a deep suspicion of law enforcement and government, and for good reason. They come from countries where authoritarian tyranny or criminal lawlessness abounds. They are in contact with government agencies and bureaucracies often on a daily basis, and not always in a positive way (from food stamps to the penitentiary).

They already know the hypocrisy of civic life. It does them no good to re-hash a paper structure that’s an illusion in their mind.

The only real way for students to believe in our system is to confront openly the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we adults see as almost inherent in the system. iCivics, in an important first step, is attempting to come to grips with these realities, while also extolling those elements that make our system unique, special and effective.

Its important for students to see our system for what it is, even if it isn’t the idealized version we expect from the Founders or Mr. Smith heading to Washington.  To be fair, it probably never was that neat and clean anyway…and that’s the fun part.

Yes, civics and government can be fun. It just needs a healthy dose of reality to make it so.

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The AEI Report on High School Social Studies: Our Review of the Findings

For the past year, the Neighborhood has railed about the attack on social studies by those in the education establishment. 

Last week, a new report has data to back our claims—and its coming from an unlikely source.

Few people would peg the American Enterprise Institute as anti-establishment—unless that establishment was driving a hybrid, collecting welfare checks, having gay intercourse, aborting babies and growing funny crops in a hydroponics lab in the basement.  The conservative DC think-tank counts among its fellows Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Lynn Cheney: hardly a bunch that would rock the boat.

AEI’s education team, furthermore, is certainly no rabble-rousers, either.  It’s headed by Frederick Hess, who’s a good buddy of my favorite educational dictator, Michelle Rhee.  He also co-directs AEI’s Future of American Education Project, which involves Rhee and KIPP cofounder Michael Feinberg—what do they chant at the beginning of those meetings, Mike?

Yet amongst little fanfare, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has recently released a report titled High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. In it, researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett studied high schools and teachers and reported essentially on the state of social studies in this country.  While their findings on content seem self-serving—especially in assessing attitudes towards American society and government—their view of social studies as a subject is spot on.

It is a disturbing picture, yet it gives credence to what we have been saying for years: social studies is suffering in America thanks to the NCLB establishment.

Farkas and Duffett studied a national random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, 245 Catholic and private school social studies teachers, and three focus groups.  Naysayers would point out that social studies teachers hardly constitute an unbiased data group on the subject.  Yet they are the ones most involved, most invested—and most attuned to the deficiencies in their subject area.

The strongest areas of the study are the findings about social studies writ large, about student learning, and standards of content knowledge.

In terms of the subject as a whole, the study backs up our claims.  45% of teachers say their school district treats socials studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.” This is opposed to 43% whose districts considered it unessential, or “important” at best.  45% claim their curriculum has been downgraded due directly to NCLB pressure, although 39% claim to be “holding their own”.  Even more disturbing, 70% of teachers say that social studies classes are of a lower priority due to the pressure of statewide math and language arts tests—even though 93% of teachers want social studies to be assessed in the same way.

Furthermore, these finding are not homogenous to all schools.  68% of private school social studies teachers feel that social studies is considered essential, as opposed to 45% of public school teachers.  Private school teachers also claim to have more control over the pace and content of their curriculum (86%), as well as a more nurturing school atmosphere for the subject.

(Wait a minute, aren’t private schools also subject to NCLB pressures?  What gives?)

The quality of teaching and learning is also of concern, according to the study.  Only 20% of teachers, and 36% of students, value the teaching of facts, dates and major events as an essential part of social studies instruction.  Only 56% of teachers can state that their students have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  64% value teaching the intricacies of the federal government, such as checks and balances, federalism, etc.  63% find knowledge of historical periods important.   Even though the current trend is toward understanding concepts and ideas in social studies, they are difficult to understand without the meat of facts, dates and events.

What’s more, we may not even be sure students are learning.  No more than 24% of teachers say they are “very confident” that their students will graduate knowing all they need to know about social studies to continue to higher education or the working world.

So on a macro scale, the Farkas and Duffett report paint a bleak picture of a subject under assault from an education establishment bent on testing progress, where teachers have lost focus of essential knowledge and students lack concrete understanding.

We knew this already.  The charts and numbers help our cause, though.

What doesn’t help is the study’s assessment of teacher attitudes and values, as well as the criteria for social studies knowledge.  The AEI education team bases knowledge of social studies on what they call the Twelve Concept s of Citizenship, which are:

  • To identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights
  • To have good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking
  • To embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty
  • To be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves
  • To understand concepts such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances
  • To be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War
  • To follow rules and be respectful of authority
  • To see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world
  • To understand economic principles such as supply and demand and the role of market incentives
  • To develop habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes
  • To be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices
  • To know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor) (AEI Report, Appendix 2)

The problem, of course, is that this basket of items is both too broad and too narrow.  While knowing about the Bill of Rights is important, it could be folded into a larger standard about American citizenship and responsibility.   Some of these are so broad that they lack any meaning. To know facts and dates?  What facts and dates?   To be knowledgeable about different historical periods is okay, but you list three periods that are already broad without including the rest, which is just as important and also pretty hefty in it of itself.

Also, some of these tenets are just dripping with ideology.  Conservatives love law and order, we know that.  Most people, in fact, prefer a safe and secure society.  But there’s a better way to word such sentiments without sounding like a 50’s principal with a crew-cut and tortoise-shell glasses.  Good luck teaching inner-city kids, or any adolescents for that matter, to “follow rules and be respectful of authority.”  My kids would likely hurl you out the window.

The same ideological bent pervades the questions about teacher attitudes and values.  One finding was that 83% of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world.” 76% say that high school should impart respect for military service, and 82% think it is important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”

These numbers, by the way, align almost perfectly to the attitudes of ordinary Americans.  Glad to know teachers are normal, loyal patriots and not the bomb-throwing, lazy Bolsheviks that are depicted by some members of (gasp!) AEI itself.

None of the values studied are particularly galling, at least to me.  Our servicemen and women should be respected, and few would argue that teaching American history must include diverse points of view.  I’m even an advocate of American exceptionalism, to an extent.  Yet if you look at the questions about attitudes and values, one could surmise that the questions were crafted to elicit certain responses.  Like our students, the format and the content/context of the questions shape the data we receive from them.

So the AEI report isn’t perfect.  Maybe they got so wrapped up in progressive education that they forgot to be neo-cons.  Or maybe AEI head Arthur Brooks warned Farkas and Duffett that they better tack right if they know what’s good for them (just ask David Frum).

Regardless of the ideological bent, the report still has value as a window on the sorry state of social studies in this country.  Amongst America’s public schools, social studies is being downgraded more and more, thrown into the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods of scan-tron sheets and number 2 pencils.  Students are lacking even the basic underpinnings of our history and government, even as they leave high school eligible to vote—a frightening prospect indeed.

Which leads me to an essential question, in fact the essential question of the study: “What are teachers trying to teach our youth about citizenship and what it means to be an American?”

My answer: Whatever fits into the pitiful 45-minute block in between assessments and test prep.

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This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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