Tag Archives: Civics

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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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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The Khaki-clad Elephant: The Dangerous Waters of Teaching Politics

The minute I said it, the gasp from the class was overwhelming.

Some stood open-mouthed.  A few were clutching their mouths in a wretch of fear.  Still another student hid under his desk, not willing to withstand another onslaught.

All because I said I was a Republican. 

I didn’t say who I voted for.  Nor did I indicate my own disagreements with the policies of the previous administration.  The admission was enough to send students into a state of shock, dismay, and, in some cases, outright anger—although they wouldn’t hit me, out of respect.  I think one kid made a crack about it being obvious because I was as “big as an elephant.”

I was now the khaki-clad, L.L. Bean shirted elephant in the room (no pun intended), and I had to get used to it.

The question of politics is a tricky one in situations like the south Bronx, an area that has been overwhelmingly Democratic for decades.  As students, my children have to know about government.  One cannot divorce today’s government from politics, which dovetails into a discussion of the two dominant political parties.  It’s important to understand the sometimes fluid ideologies of both parties, as well as the histories of their development.

Yet how can a person teach effectively and accurately about our political system when one side of the political spectrum is immediately painted as a monster?

This was especially true this past winter on Inauguration Day, a day we should all celebrate as the beginning of a new Presidential administration.  This inauguration was even more significant, as the first African-American chief executive was about to be sworn in.  The students were wild with excitement, as they should be.  This was a day where we could all stand proud and watch our process continue to work as it began 222 years ago.

The ceremony inside the auditorium, however, really bothered me.  Some of the teachers had the students chanting Barack Obama’s name, almost in a Nuremburg rhythm complete with drums and jackboots.  There were songs, speeches, poems from children praising the new President.  None of this was particularly bad—how can an 8 year old think of foreign policy beyond “saving the world” and “make people happy.” 

Yet the prospect of hero worship, even if it’s somewhat deserved, was anathema to my sense of democratic fairness. 

You cannot have a hero without a villain—that’s the cardinal comic book rule.  Someone had to play the heavy (again, no pun intended).  After all, the heroes are defined by the villains they pursue, be they the Joker, Lex Luthor or Dick Cheney.  Luthor would’ve made a great CIA director.

On top of this was the tingling sense that these children were not getting a complete picture of American political reality.  We do, after all, have two political parties–with each party enjoying a sizeable electorate.  I wasn’t sure that my students were getting a fair representation of government.  As a child, I knew Ronald Reagan had faults–he couldn’t be right all the time, even if he could fill out a suit well.  As much as the liberal establishment cringes at the thought, Obama deserves the same scrutiny.

I had to provide some sort of sanity to the whole situation.  If this goes any further, there may be Obama youths walking around with multi-colored neckerchiefs.  Students may start roasting elephants in effigy.  Piles of Babar books could go up in flames.  Dumbo would be banned from the library.

After the celebrations, I was meeting with some of my older students: the same students that cringed in fear about my political affiliation.  To them, I represented everything Obama campaigned against: the war on terror, Iraq, big oil, Wall Street, the Patriot Act, all in one bald, chubby package (not unlike many leading Republicans.).

 It was then that I stiffened up and said the following:

“Guys, I’m really glad you’re excited about Obama becoming President.  You should be, and it was an important moment in our history.

 I just want to make sure that you’re realistic about what the President can and cannot do.  Remember that we learned that the President does NOT run this country—we do.  We elect a Congress and an executive to write and administer laws.  They work together, so no one person can do what they want.

Let me be clear.  You know I’m a Republican, and you may also know that I did not vote for Barack Obama…”

(another gasp from the students)

“I felt that my ideas were better represented by Senator McCain.  That does not mean, however, that Mr. Obama deserves less of my respect.  Even if I did not vote for him, he is the President of the United States.  He holds the highest office in our country, and I respect whoever is elected to that office.  Right now, that person is Barack Obama.  Who knows who it will be in four or eight years.   No matter who it is, they deserve our respect.

This leads me to my last point.  Remember that Barack Obama is a man like anyone else.  He will make mistakes—even George Washington made some.  So did Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  Don’t expect him to make miracles.  There were 42 men who were President before Obama, and there will be many more after him, God willing.  We may even see a woman in the White House. 

The people in our government come and go.  It’s the Constitution, our plan, our engine of government that lives forever.  It was this plan that made us a great nation, and will continue to make us a great nation.  There have been good and bad people in our government, but the system they served still survives.  That’s what’s most important.”

I thought I’d be crucified at this point–or lynched, at the very least.

Instead, most of the students nodded in agreement.  Many understood how Obama fit into the context of our system.  Still others were grateful that I was so honest in my opinions.

It was incredibly satisfying to see that students, even students in a highly partisan community, can open up to different points of view.  I felt ecstatic, as if I had slain the Democratic PR machine with my use of doctrinaire constitutional policy. 

All I really did was deflate the Obama balloon and bring it that much closer to Earth. 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago.  I opened my unit on government with a new set of students.  We had discussed the heated debate over health care reform, and one of the students asked:

“I heard from an older kid that you were Republican, is that true?”

I nodded.

“Does that mean you’re one of those weirdo white people that yell and scream at one of those meetings?”

Nope.  I’m too busy correcting your terrible essays for that nonsense.

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“School House Rock” videos for the Social Studies Classroom–“I’m Just a Bill” and “Tyrannosaurus Debt”

As teachers gear up for the beginning of the school year, its time to get our resources in order.  Today we have a few videos that still provide valuable instruction after many years.  The first is an old classic, “I’m Just a Bill.”  The heartwarming ditty about a bill’s journey through Washington’s legislative process is still useful for those kids who still can’t remember those pain-in-the-ass flow charts we see in so many civics textbooks.

The next piece is a little more obscure.  You’re kids may have watched some news during the summer.  They may ask about the big deal over health care reform.  “Tyrannosaurus Debt” is a big help in explaining why so many people are against this proposal–as well as many other proposals.  Heck, it may have (at one time) been the explanation for the Republican Party (although fiscal discipline went out the window in the Bush years.)

I’d love to hear from readers about how they used these and other streaming media in their classrooms.  If for nothing else, I could always use some pointers.

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