Institute helps instructors teach civics

July 22, 2010
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This post was written by Indiana Lawyer reporter Rebecca Berfanger.

After attending the Project Citizen Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington last month, I jumped at the Indiana Bar Foundation’s invitation to again head south, this time to check out the We The People Institute. Due to a hectic schedule this week, I was only able to attend a Wednesday morning session but it was well worth the time.

This summer’s institute, which started last weekend and wraps up on Saturday with mock congressional hearings, includes about 50 teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.

As a way to learn what the students go through, the teachers learn the six units for We The People: philosophical and historical underpinnings of the Constitution; writing of and debates about the Constitution; Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln through the civil rights movement; modern day functions of the branches of government and federalism; Bill of Rights and civil liberties; and current applications of the units and international relations.

Throughout the institute, they also prepare and ultimately present mock congressional hearings before those who’ve judged or worked with students in the past, including many attorneys.

I sat in on Unit 4, which is about the modern functions of the branches of government. Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, focused on presidential powers. He said this unit is of interest to students more than some others because it has to do with current events, and if nothing else, students do or at least should know who the president is and may have also heard their parents gripe about Congress as a whole or certain members in the news.

While explaining presidential powers to the teachers, including a paragraph-by-paragraph reading of Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, how the founders argued heavily about what the presidency does or doesn’t entail compared to a monarchy, how those powers have expanded since the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and why checks and balances from the other branches of government are imperfect, more importantly he shared with teachers how effectively to explain this to students.

Using pop culture references to explain the difference between empirical questions of fact and normative questions of value, as well as the imperfections of the Constitution, the teachers appeared to be entertained.

For instance, he said some questions were too “pat,” and showed a photo of the androgynous Saturday Night Live character, Pat. He said that it is OK when questions are ambiguous because students understand there isn’t always a clear-cut answer to the questions they ask, that not all students will agree on an answer within a classroom or even on a small team, and that while these “Pat” questions will make for more work for the teacher and students, the learning process and research will be worthwhile in the end.

He also used the example of infomercial king Ron Popeil’s Showtime Rotisserie with the catch phrase: “Set it and forget it,” as a way to illustrate how many Americans think checks and balances work. In reality, he said, that’s not really how it is, and Americans should be vigilant about their government officials. He added this was just one more reason the We The People program is a worthwhile class for students.

While I couldn’t stay for the second part of the session, or any other sessions during the institute, a part of me wished I could have been there the whole week to brush up on my own civics education. As a side note – I learned most of this in high school, had a refresher in grad school while reporting about Congress in Washington, D.C., but I still had to pause when Dion quipped that most people wouldn’t know who represents them in government “even if Dick Cheney waterboarded them.”

Luckily, it wasn’t that hard for me to remember my Congressman – but it wasn’t an instant reaction either. And a few minutes later I remembered my state representatives … but I’ll have to look it up to be sure.

An article about the civics education institutes will be in a future edition of Indiana Lawyer and has been covered in past editions.
 

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