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Making Civics Real Workshop 7: Controversial Public Policy Issues  
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Workshop 7

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Teacher Perspectives: The importance of the lesson

JoEllen Ambrose: I think social studies education is all about citizen development. I want my students to walk out with a sense of how we can participate in [the democratic] system. The level of participation is not necessarily, “I’m going to be active on this issue,” but more “I am going to be a citizen that engages in a dialogue that’s meaningful and I’m not going to listen to the sound bites that are coming at me from this, this, or this. I’m going to realize that all issues are very complex and policy-making is a matter of choosing between goals.” Citizens really need to understand those issues so that when they choose, when they exercise the right to vote, when they want to influence the legislature, they approach those issues with a level of complexity.

Good thinking on these controversial issues is a big part of social studies education. Racial profiling is a topic that right now has some interest because we’re more aware of it. In our own community, the role of the police is very important. When we alienate groups of people, we, as a society, suffer. If we no longer have support, especially on the terrorism issue, from the very communities that might be the ones that are a risk for us because they don’t like being questioned, we lose some of who we are.

Sometimes, as social studies teachers, we are criticized because we stir the pot a little too much. We bring up topics that get kids all hot and bothered. Are we really teaching them what our country is about [or] are we creating more problems? I guess I think that particular question is [at] the heart of educational philosophy. [In] a social studies classroom that only picks the easy issues or only teaches values like equality and liberty by reading them out of a book or finding them in foundational documents, students will walk away with some knowledge of those values. But I would argue that in not dealing with controversial issues, we risk cynics and apathy.

If you don’t have a deeper understanding of those issues, the first time a topic challenges those values, our shallow understanding gets shattered and we’re crushed. Maybe because it was a book-learning experience, it’s not long-term learning, and we become apathetic. The controversial issue is the one that sparks the student. That’s the one that engages them in the learning process. They’re speaking from their relevant life experience. They’re getting into the dialogue. They’re feeling the tension and they’re making judgments and weighing very difficult issues. The whole dynamic of those values becomes meaningful for them.


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