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. From his recent appearance on WRTV to this story here, Frank is everywhere. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, although he should stop using Eric Schnauffer for his 7th Circuit briefs. They're not THAT hard.

  2. They learn our language prior to coming here. My grandparents who came over on the boat, had to learn English and become familiarize with Americas customs and culture. They are in our land now, speak ENGLISH!!

  3. @ Rebecca D Fell, I am very sorry for your loss. I think it gives the family solace and a bit of closure to go to a road side memorial. Those that oppose them probably did not experience the loss of a child or a loved one.

  4. If it were your child that died maybe you'd be more understanding. Most of us don't have graves to visit. My son was killed on a state road and I will be putting up a memorial where he died. It gives us a sense of peace to be at the location he took his last breath. Some people should be more understanding of that.

  5. Can we please take notice of the connection between the declining state of families across the United States and the RISE OF CPS INVOLVEMENT??? They call themselves "advocates" for "children's rights", however, statistics show those children whom are taken from, even NEGLIGENT homes are LESS likely to become successful, independent adults!!! Not to mention the undeniable lack of respect and lack of responsibility of the children being raised today vs the way we were raised 20 years ago, when families still existed. I was born in 1981 and I didn't even ever hear the term "CPS", in fact, I didn't even know they existed until about ten years ago... Now our children have disagreements between friends and they actually THREATEN EACH OTHER WITH, "I'll call CPS" or "I'll have [my parent] (usually singular) call CPS"!!!! And the truth is, no parent is perfect and we all have flaws and make mistakes, but it is RIGHTFULLY OURS - BY THE CONSTITUTION OF THIS GREAT NATION - to be imperfect. Let's take a good look at what kind of parenting those that are stealing our children are doing, what kind of adults are they producing? WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS TO THE CHILDREN THAT HAVE BEEN RIPPED FROM THEIR FAMILY AND THAT CHILD'S SUCCESS - or otherwise - AS AN ADULT.....

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