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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Constitutional Convention Constitutional Convention — Student Perspectives

At the time these students were interviewed they were seniors at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Washington, D.C., where they were enrolled in an AP Comparative Government course taught by Matt Johnson. The interviews were conducted in connection with their participation in a simulation in which students worked in cooperative groups to develop a constitution for a hypothetical country and then engaged in a full-class debate to determine what constitutional provisions they would adopt.

Group Work

Alvin: I have a great group. [One member] has no problem putting his thoughts out there and he doesn’t hold back. He and [another member] really want you to know what they’re thinking. Not only does [group work] enable you to focus on thinking individually, you have to learn how to compromise. You can’t have everything you want [and] you can’t just let other people walk over you. Working by yourself is good but you’re never going to pick up on everything no matter how many books you read [or] how long you study. You’re going to miss something and your own interpretation of something may or may not be slanted. If you get someone else to read the same material and you discuss it together, the other person may say, “Well, you know, when I read this sentence, I picked up on this,” and you may not have gotten that. You may agree or disagree, but either way allows you to think about it even more, and you grow as well as the other person.

Brionna: At first I didn’t like working in groups at all because I’m used to doing things my own way, but when you work in a group you get a lot of different opinions and it’s really good to see what other people come up with. You learn more. Sometimes one person pulls more weight than other people or sometimes you just butt heads too much and you get nothing done, but I think the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

Ceretta: I think we’re working well together and it’s going pretty well. Certain people in our group have more expertise in some areas–like there’s one young man who reads a lot and knows more [about] constitutions, and there’s another one who knows more about [the] philosophy of Karl Marx. It helps us construct the constitution better and it helps us see how it makes up the representation of the government. Other people may have different ideas and we can add that into our own. It really does help me. We’re working with a lot of countries, and if I forget a certain aspect–like how the judicial branch of India works–and somebody can help me with that, I may be able to help with the executive branch of the United Kingdom. Working on how to cooperate and compromise and not being too scared to ask for help or offer help are really important. It really helps with your social skills.

Chris: [A few of us] had really wild ideas. We wanted to be avant garde, whereas [the other members] are really conservative. They were scared that their resolutions weren’t going to be adopted. We weren’t too worried about our resolution being adopted, we just wanted to get the ideas out there. Maybe we could get someone to change his or her mind, or form some kind of coalition. Our ideas just kept clashing. Every time there was a resolution presented, almost everyone in the group had a different resolution. It was fun at times, but it also was frustrating. I was trying to make everyone see the way that I think government should be and they didn’t see it in that manner. They were getting hostile and I was getting hostile and they said, “Let’s not get hysterical and crazy.” We [decided to not] say anything for five minutes and then come back and start talking, and we kind of compromised.

The [positive side] of working in groups is the ability to learn how to cooperate with other people because that’s what you’re going to have to do when you get older and start working in the real world. The [negative side of] working with other people [is that they don’t always come through]. I think the major pro of working in groups is the ability to hear other people’s points of view and kind of match them up with yours.

Elliott: I think the group works well because we have a lot of different viewpoints and personality types. [Mr. Johnson] tries to force you to interact with people you wouldn’t [interact with] normally. So far, my group has been pretty cohesive. [One] member is a really sharp guy–cynical, always thinking outside of the box in different ways, which is great. [Another] is an advocate for the people, so that’s good. And [a third] is a great organizer and keeps everybody on task.

Jade: [One member] brings a lot of conservative views as far as what she thinks government should be or how people should rule. [Another] is pretty liberal in her beliefs and especially in her thoughts of how the United States interacts with different countries. I try to look for the most effective, efficient policies that the majority of people can relate to–something that will be fair to all classes, both sexes, and all racial backgrounds. Actually we bring a lot of different viewpoints into perspective. It’s not that the group members are difficult [or that] our interests are so conflicting that we don’t get to agree on anything. If someone throws out a point that really makes sense, we try to find equilibrium between all three views.

Lauren: [One member] is not set with his beliefs. He looks at both sides of the story and tries to come to a conclusion. He’s easy to work with because he’s more understanding. He definitely contributes to the group. [Another member] has his own views about a lot of things. He’ll say, “Well I can see your side, but I still believe it should be this way.” There’s no changing his beliefs for the most part. [The first fellow], on the other hand, tries to defend his side but he understood both sides and he’s more prone to changing his ideas because another group member might have a better point. I don’t understand it as much as the rest of the group. So I do participate, but I participate when I know what I’m talking about. I just kind of sit back and listen to what’s going on first. Once I understand what’s going on, I contribute.

Toussaint: I like our group. There’s a lot of diversity–we have the only Hispanic in the class, so as far as even race goes, we have diversity. As far as the voices go, I think I am most of the voice of the people in my group. We have a female in our group who hasn’t decided her political views in life but she’s helping out. The one Hispanic in our group is very intelligent. He and I clash. We come from different homes and different backgrounds. [Another member], who is also a very smart person, has been playing devil’s advocate. He’s willing to say that he agrees with everyone but he can see the fault with everyone also. I like working with people and so working in a group to me is fun–bouncing ideas off, even arguing, because through struggle we get progress. I really do like fighting over ideas even if it doesn’t come out my way.

Victor: The thing about group work is you don’t know how strict the teacher is going to grade [it] as opposed to when he gives us a test when we know that each question is worth such and such points. It’s a little bit more difficult because we are learning from each other. We might not accomplish as much as we want, and it’s just more complicated to figure out what we’re going to get.

The issues

Alvin: We were talking about who could vote for Permistan’s leader. We were saying, “What about immigrants? Do you have to be a citizen? What’s our definition of a citizen?” [One girl in the group] was talking about the women because for so many years women have been held back, and we definitely want all women to be on equal playing field as men. If you establish a country that is, to steal a term from one of my teachers, “loosey-goosey” and has no set limits, the people are really going to go crazy. If you establish some rules, some people are going to follow them. You’re never going to get everyone to follow them because people naturally want to be rebellious and different. A constitution and a set form of government make things flow. They say, “In the event that this happens, we’re going to take this plan of action.” If you don’t have that, what are you going to fall back on?

Brionna: One of the big debates was over whether [all] people who pay income tax should be able to vote. Some people had a problem with people who were 14, 15, or 16 voting, even though they pay income taxes. Another big debate was about whether ex-cons should be allowed to vote. I think that they should be allowed to because they’re still citizens even though they committed a crime. We [also] had to determine the number of [legislative] houses. I wanted a uni-government legislature, because I feel that one is enough. In the U.K. and France, the upper houses are just ceremonial anyway. It ended up being a bicameral system just like ours is in America. We were able to negotiate to form a consensus on most things but sometimes we just didn’t compromise at all. That made it fun though.

Ceretta: My group has been doing pretty well [but] I think I’ve been a little bit of a problem. I wanted more of a Russian government, where the people would elect the legislative branch and the legislative branch would choose the president. I think they’ve been leaning more toward the United States government.

Chris: I don’t really believe that [the country] should be governed by the elite, but I do believe that people should know something about government. They shouldn’t just vote blindly. In Minnesota, Jesse Ventura basically got the vote of the 18- to 25-year-olds who are novice voters, and exploited his antics in the ring and his wrestling career. I don’t really think government should be a popularity contest. I think the best people for the job should be elected. My suffrage requirement was being 17 years of age and being able to pass a basic knowledge of the political history of your country and the issues of that particular election. Our class claims to be liberal, but they really don’t embrace new ideas. The only thing that I found interesting was that [they decided] ex-felons should have the right to vote. Then I thought–we’re in the District of Columbia and a lot of people know ex-felons and they don’t feel that they should be deprived of their right to vote. That kind of surprised me because they are really conservative and they came up with this really, really leftist idea.

I personally back plurality because I think that with plurality you can have a really right idea, a moderate idea, and a really left idea. If the moderate and the left come together, they can defeat the right. Some proposal that you never thought could get passed could slip in there and win. I think the constitution is basically like an infrastructure–things you can do and things you can’t do. I can’t believe that [the framers of the U.S. Constitution] actually came up with such a great constitution in that short period of time–and the compromises that they had to make and the sacrifice of time, effort, and money. It must have been a Herculean task. There is no way I could probably have done it. I would have walked out because these are really intelligent men and usually intelligent men think they know everything and they think that their way is the right way and sometimes they are not able to yield to other people’s ideas.

Elliott: Today we’ve been working on getting the executive branch together. In the beginning we got a little stuck. We have so many ideas that we had to tell ourselves to just move on. The first part was sort of defining the process of how the president would be elected and his duties. We talked about term limits. At one point I think my other three group members brought up literacy tests, which seems like lunacy to me, but they were pretty adamant about it. We compromised.

Jade: To me, it gets into the process of formulating legislation for people to live by. Sometimes rules are so broad that it’s kind of hard to fit them in the scheme of things. Or, if your rules are not so broad, no one will want to follow them. You want to create a place that will be comfortable and safe for everyone to live in together. You may have a set of rules and people may still find a way to violate those. At the same time, it is really important to have a way of government [where] people can live comfortably and have a greater respect for themselves as individuals within a collective. The toughest issue was who would have voting rights. We decided to have no literacy tests and we really talked about how we think it’s important that both taxpayers and non-taxpayers have the right to vote. We really went in-depth on the importance of having equal protection of the laws and being able to exercise political efficacy.

Toussaint: The constitution we end up with will be an embodiment of all of our political ideas and beliefs. Those political ideas and beliefs come from morals and everyday life. You can’t move on without knowing your past, and governments are formed from a country’s history. A lot of people would say that our constitution was written in maybe a year or two. Really our constitution was being written since people first landed on this land because their past experience helped teach them what they knew and they kept learning and it gave them the ideological beliefs to form our constitution.

Victor: Every decision my group wanted to make led to further questions. [One group member] brought up a good point–that we are trying to set up something totally different, something original, yet not. Our founding fathers were a spawn of a monarchy so they knew exactly what they did not want. I have respect for them because they went through a lot of drama and a lot of complicated [things], which led to a pretty decent nation. To create a basic constitution, you have to stress equality. You have to try to make one body of people, one body of laws that can co-exist. My group is basically conservative. What we’ve come to acknowledge is that we have deep respect for our forefathers.

Matt Johnson's teaching methods

Alvin: Mr. Johnson is arguably one of the best teachers I’ve had. There’s a difference between a teacher and a professor. Most likely, a professor would get up there and stand in front of a class and just read his notes and talk for the whole hour. Mr. Johnson will not go more than a couple of minutes without having the class respond. He doesn’t want the spotlight on him. He wants it to come to us because it’s easier for most students to talk to other students about issues. Mr. Johnson is available all the time; his room is always open; and you can talk to him about anything–the stock market, sports, anything. If you’ve got a personal problem, Mr. Johnson will sit you down and break things down for you from his own perspective. He always has a smile on his face.

Brionna: Mr. Johnson is really down to earth. You can talk to him very easily about anything. He’s fun to be around and he really makes things easy to understand. You never feel like you’re stupid or asking a dumb question, because he feels that everything you say is important. I think a lot of teenagers are very impressionable. We’re looking for an answer to everything. His opinion would have more weight, so by him being neutral we can form our own opinions and not feel that we’re inferior because we’re teenagers. It’s just a very easy-going mood. There is no stress in his class. He always comes around and asks how we’re doing to make sure that we’re all working together efficiently and everything is running smoothly. You think of him more of a friend than as a teacher. He always has good ways of explaining stuff to us. He always tells us about current events so we can have a reference to what we’re talking about.

Ceretta: Mr. Johnson is really down to earth and I think that helps students feel more comfortable and more ready to learn. He understands what we’re going through and we’re not afraid to come to him for help. He doesn’t lecture and he allows the students to participate. When we’re working on [a country], he assigns a certain aspect–like when we were working on the United Kingdom, I was assigned Tony Blair, and now we’re working on India, and I was assigned Indian federalism. After I study it, I’ll be able to present it to the class, and if I have some facts mixed up he’ll help me and at the end he’ll give sort of a synopsis of what I’ve said. At the end of everyone’s presentation he helps answer whatever we have questions about. His way of teaching is not conventional. After going through classes where somebody is telling you to read something and just spit it out, he’s there to help you discuss it and understand it. He’s able to add in different ideas and have students give their perspective on things.

Chris: Mr. Johnson is probably one of the most sympathetic teachers in the school to the needs of children. He knows that we have other obligations inside and outside of school, so if we come to him with a problem he’s very flexible. He’s a very smart guy. He really knows what he’s talking about. He’s very well read, very approachable. The way that he teaches us that really works for me is that he lets you explore the topic that you’re studying. Even if the view is not in the book or he hasn’t seen it or heard of it before, all you have to do is show it to him. He’s very accepting of everyone’s ideas and everyone’s opinions. He’s not putting down your opinion because it’s not orthodox. He takes every opportunity to accommodate student interests. Mr. Johnson is never condescending. He’s always there to learn, too.

Jade: Mr. Johnson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Even though he is the authority of our classroom, we kind of see Mr. Johnson as another student. Not only does he teach us, we also teach him—and there are different things that Mr. Johnson can learn from us. The most important thing is the emphasis he puts on group work. He tends to break us up into smaller groups so we can hear different viewpoints and sometimes come to an understanding as to [why] people would think a certain way. I really like that he doesn’t lecture. He’ll kind of teach a concept, and it’s up to us to make sure that we understand it. We do a lot of discussion in his class. Most of the work isn’t written. We do a lot of interactive things.

Lauren: At times he gets kind of frustrated because I think we take advantage of him because he’s so easygoing, but for the most part he’s a really nice person to work with. I knew at the beginning of the year I didn’t understand a lot. I bugged him all the time–I was walking with him to his lunch, I walked him back to the classroom–so that I would understand everything. He understood that I was having a hard time, and he was very willing to help me so that I would learn the material well.

Toussaint: Mr. Johnson interviewed me to come here, so we’ve had that connection. He’s a funny guy. He knows the facts, he knows everything almost right off, and he [is very] thought provoking. He’ll ask questions, and he’ll play devil’s advocate to make you think in another realm. I really appreciate that about him. Instead of talking at you, he talks with you. There are a lot of facts, and he’ll make sure we know them but he allows us to form our own ideas with the facts that we’re given. When we debate, he won’t let the class get out of hand but he allows us to even debate our own thoughts, and I think that’s something that a lot of classes are missing.

Victor: Mr. Johnson respects us so we respect him. It’s a mutual understanding between the students and teacher. He’s better than most teachers. Some yell at us for not even talking and other teachers just say nothing while we talk. I think it’s a perfect balance in Mr. Johnson’s class.

Constructivist learning

Alvin: He has the students do a lot of the research. He splits up the different parameters of the country and gives a topic to each of the students and says go out and in a couple of days come back with a paper. Then he says, “You’re going to get up in front of the class and you’re going to teach the subject.” We get up there in front of the class and we talk about it and we get a discussion going. When we’re done, he kind of steps in. He says if he notices something a little off–maybe we didn’t explain something fully. He’s more knowledgeable than we are but he also likes to throw hypotheticals in there. He’ll say, “Well, what if this situation came up in this type of economy?” He likes to get you to think. He wants you to relate it to your own personal experiences. Mr. Johnson has really done a good job of showing me that there’s more to government than just Supreme Court cases and facts. It’s your personal opinions as well.

Brionna: You really become interested and it’s a lot easier to learn that way. It’s more fun because you’re not just sitting and listening to someone tell you the facts. You are more involved in it. You express your own ideas. [The teacher] listens to you and gives you feedback. It’s really dynamic. I like learning through simulation because it really puts you into the situation so you know how people who did it before thought [and] what they had to do to get their ideas out. It puts it in perspective because you really understand how different people think and how you need to negotiate to come up with something that will work for a majority of people.

Chris: [This] is kind of a self-taught class. The way Mr. Johnson has approached teaching, the class is all student-run. He assigns each student a particular facet of government, a social issue, and something dealing with religion, and we come and present it to the class. Hopefully we know the subject well enough [to] teach it.

Elliott: Most of the things we do in class have given us opportunities to think outside the box. We’re learning [about] a lot of different countries at the same time. We wouldn’t understand any of it if we weren’t given the opportunity to relate it to things that we already know. As you’re watching current events, being able to understand why countries use things and maybe why they shouldn’t helps you instead of just being able to recall facts about it. You’re not just thinking America-centric. You understand why each country needs a different form of government. We’re given opportunities to apply what we’re learning in constructive ways. We do a lot of group learning. Instead of him lecturing, we’re able to interact with our classmates. It’s teaching us how to be independent. When you have to study something yourself and then go up in front of class and explain it to everybody else, it forces you to do the research in a way that you can explain it in common language to your classmates, which is harder than writing a paper. You become a more dynamic learner.

Jade: Doing an interactive project, such as the simulation, is actually the best way to learn because you learn through experience. By actually studying the policies and the histories of all these countries, we are trying to learn how to devise a plan for another country. The best way to learn how to do that is to actually do it, not read about it.

Lauren: He doesn’t lecture so much because a lot of times when you lecture teenagers, they don’t listen. They’ll go right to sleep. He does a lot of group work and that helps a little bit because you’re working with more than one mind and he’ll come around and observe us and see if we have any questions. Since I’m not as good in government, I have other people to work with, other people to help me to understand what’s going on. There are a few teachers that lecture and there are a few teachers that just hand you something to work on by yourself and don’t come around and check on it. Mr. Johnson does lecture a little bit but there is interaction with the students. He’ll call on us. He’ll ask us our opinion or ask us a question and expect an answer. If you really don’t look like you understand, he won’t call on you because that can be embarrassing.

Victor: Students learn best from each other so if we are our own teachers, it makes the information sink in deeper. It’s not information that’s just fed to us from a teacher. Not to say that’s always wrong or negative, but when it comes from our peers our ears are a little more open.

Civic education

Alvin: I might be 18 years old but I’m still a pretty immature person who has a heck of a lot to learn about life in general, but after taking this class, I know more. I hold being a citizen to a greater degree. You may not think that your vote matters, or [that] what you think makes any difference, but as you’re going through the course you realize that there was a protest here for something, and you realize this one person had an idea and got a few people behind him and started a little rally, and that rally grew into a big protest. As long as you’re persistent and you keep at it, you can work toward a desirable goal. Being a citizen is more than just living in a country. It’s participating in your government and being knowledgeable of what’s going on. I’ve started watching C-SPAN every now and then, and CNN more often, just to see what’s going on–not just in D.C. or the United States, [but in] the world.

Brionna: At first I had no interest whatsoever in government and politics, but after taking this class, I’m really interested. I read the newspaper almost every day now to figure out what’s going on around the world. I’m an American citizen and it’s important for me to contribute to society, to vote, to give my opinion, to make sure that everything is fair and just in our society. The only way to be able to do that is if you know a lot.

Chris: I can tell that I’ve progressed in his class because I’m making more assumptions on my own. I draw from facts and then draw my own conclusions. I’m not just spitting out what I read the night before. I want to major in government because I believe that the political leaders of today aren’t able to serve African-American citizens in the manner that I think they are capable of doing. So I want to hold a political position where I can change these atrocities that have happened to African Americans, not only over the past 30 years, but maybe the past 50 or 60 years.

Elliott: Civic education is important because if you want to be a responsible citizen, you should understand how your government and other governments work. It’s important in high school, because I don’t think college is for everybody. Two years ago I was really cynical. I wasn’t planning on voting because I wasn’t sure that my vote really counted. One thing studying government has done is that I’ve learned that having a voice is always better than not having a voice. Not voting is like having no voice so voting is always a good thing. You’re never going to be completely happy with what’s going on, so studying governments of other countries has forced me to appreciate some things that are positive about our government and forced me to look at things in different ways and sort of sparked the desire to build and stay abreast of what’s going on–and to keep active instead of being cynical and not doing anything.

Jade: My role as a citizen has become more important to me. I learned that I really do have rights and it’s important that other people know that. [From] taking these classes, I know that my role in society is very important in the sense that because I’ve received this kind of information, it’s important to let other people know that they have the same rights and the same responsibilities as a citizen.

Lauren: I understand the structure of the government much better now. Before, I didn’t pay attention to the news too much, so I didn’t know too much of what was going on. My father is a reporter, and he actually covered the Clinton campaign, so he knew a lot about what was going on in the executive branch, but I never paid any attention to it. I thought it was boring. This class has made it a lot more interesting and a lot more fun because I actually found myself picking up the newspaper and saying, “Well what’s going on?” I looked at Great Britain in class and then after we finished studying it, I still wanted to continue to learn what’s going on with Tony Blair, what’s going on in the countries, because it’s just so interesting. It sparks interest and it kind of leaves you hanging. I don’t want to study it so much. I just want to keep up on it. I want to watch the news more.

Toussaint: My parents are very learned people. My parents also don’t believe in the capitalist system and so they have very revolutionary ideas. I’ve taken those ideas. I believe “workers of the world unite.” There are a lot of things about America that I like but I also believe that the capitalist system inevitably will fall. That’s something I’ve been taught. It’s not like I can’t go to bed without knowing what’s going on in the world, but [my parents] keep me abreast of what’s going on. In Mr. Johnson’s class, in some instances, I’ve been learning [things that are] almost in opposition to my parents’ political beliefs. That’s really helped because it’s given me a broader [view]. At home, even though you don’t want to believe it, you’re not always told the opposition, and not taught to understand it. Learning it from the other point of view has really helped in seeing what my opposition likes and dislikes. I enjoy just probing people’s minds.

Victor: Before I took this class, I had to help my mom study to become a citizen. We drove her to the test and I didn’t really agree with it. She had to study little petty questions and she didn’t know English that well. It was like, “This is so hard for you ma, why does my government want you to do this, what difference will it make?” But through this class I’ve learned that the questions aren’t really to educate my mother but just to beat out those who are not really willing to sacrifice to put forth the effort. If I would have to agree or disagree with the way things are right now, I’d have to be right in the middle. There are good aspects to my government’s method in [granting] citizenship and then there are negative aspects. I’d say we learn why all these laws were put in place and what purpose they serve.

Series Directory

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-679-0