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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  1. I work with some older lawyers in the 70s, 80s, and they are sharp as tacks compared to the foggy minded, undisciplined, inexperienced, listless & aimless "youths" being churned out by the diploma mill law schools by the tens of thousands. A client is generally lucky to land a lawyer who has decided to stay in practice a long time. Young people shouldn't kid themselves. Experience is golden especially in something like law. When you start out as a new lawyer you are about as powerful as a babe in the cradle. Whereas the silver halo of age usually crowns someone who can strike like thunder.

  2. YES I WENT THROUGH THIS BEFORE IN A DIFFERENT SITUATION WITH MY YOUNGEST SON PEOPLE NEED TO LEAVE US ALONE WITH DCS IF WE ARE NOT HURTING OR NEGLECT OUR CHILDREN WHY ARE THEY EVEN CALLED OUT AND THE PEOPLE MAKING FALSE REPORTS NEED TO GO TO JAIL AND HAVE A CLASS D FELONY ON THERE RECORD TO SEE HOW IT FEELS. I WENT THREW ALOT WHEN HE WAS TAKEN WHAT ELSE DOES THESE SCHOOL WANT ME TO SERVE 25 YEARS TO LIFE ON LIES THERE TELLING OR EVEN LE SAME THING LIED TO THE COUNTY PROSECUTOR JUST SO I WOULD GET ARRESTED AND GET TIME HE THOUGHT AND IT TURNED OUT I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO NOT PROUD OF WHAT HAPPEN AND SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SEEKING MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR MY CHILD I AM DISABLED AND SICK OF GETTING TREATED BADLY HOW WOULD THEY LIKE IT IF I CALLED APS ON THEM FOR A CHANGE THEN THEY CAN COME AND ARREST THEM RIGHT OUT OF THE SCHOOL. NOW WE ARE HOMELESS AND THE CHILDREN ARE STAYING WITH A RELATIVE AND GUARDIAN AND THE SCHOOL WON'T LET THEM GO TO SCHOOL THERE BUT WANT THEM TO GO TO SCHOOL WHERE BULLYING IS ALLOWED REAL SMART THINKING ON A SCHOOL STAFF.

  3. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

  4. Right on. Legalize it. We can take billions away from the drug cartels and help reduce violence in central America and more unwanted illegal immigration all in one fell swoop. cut taxes on the savings from needless incarcerations. On and stop eroding our fourth amendment freedom or whatever's left of it.

  5. "...a switch from crop production to hog production "does not constitute a significant change."??? REALLY?!?! Any judge that cannot see a significant difference between a plant and an animal needs to find another line of work.

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