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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Constitutional Convention Constitutional Convention — Teacher Perspectives

Matt Johnson teaches an AP Comparative Government course to seniors at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Washington, D.C. These interview excerpts relate to a simulation he created on developing a constitution for a hypothetical country.

Using simulations

Matt Johnson: This activity is a simulation of a real event [that uses] a combination [of] methodologies [including] cooperative learning. It’s not the only activity we would use, but it’s the main one that I like to use when reviewing. I think the simulation works in this type of lesson because you’re asking the kids to draw on a lot of information. It’s one thing to quiz them on it, but this sort of taking and crafting something I find is the best learning process. One group, for example, is posing three houses in the legislative branch. Now they may not get that through, but they’re taking some ownership in this unique idea and they’ll argue it in the next lesson. They’ve reacted to the material. I think that’s important.

It is a very positive way to get these kids to master material and it’s not strict memorization. When they have to sit down and problem solve, they learn more than printing things on index cards and memorization tables. It’s also a fun way to teach, to be honest. I get to know more about the kids. I get to hear their ideas and it breaks down a lot of barriers between the student and the teacher. I can have conversations with my students. If I’m strictly lecturing, I never find out about what makes them tick and how they think and react to material. The only feedback I get would be questions they’d ask or the essays they might write on a test.

My work has been put in prior to this lesson, in thinking about what I want to have the kids cover, and putting together the worksheets, the rubric, and the groups. So it’s not teacher-centered. It’s really students learning from each other by talking and engaging with each other.

Combining methodologies

Matt Johnson: I look at the entire unit and try to think what activities might work–what do I want to see come out of this particular field of study. I use the textbook as the framework, in the sense that these are the topics that we will cover, but I supplement it with current articles. There is not a lot of controversy in the textbook but there is a lot of controversy in politics, so if you just use the textbook you’re sugar coating everything. But it is a good source for some basic preliminary information. If the textbook is going to be your sole source of information, depending on the textbook, you’re almost doing a disservice to the topic. It’s deeper than what a textbook will give it [but] there are some chapters we do more traditionally if the material just doesn’t lend itself [to constructivism].

The direct teaching that I do is woven in during the course of a country study. I usually have the kids do a basic report on the economy and the political and social forces in a country. Then I will lecture on other supporting facts and issues. Then I turn it over to the kids but I usually end up reviewing everything–lecturing again–as we prepare for the exam.

You’ve got to look at what you’re about to approach, and then work backwards. I’m a firm believer [that] the constant teacher-centered approach doesn’t work. I think, though, that you can go a little too crazy and rely on groups too much. The kids need a mix. Every once in a while [they need to] be told, “Here are the things that I feel are important.” They want to know that usually towards the end if there is an assessment coming up–a traditional assessment. They want to know, “What do we have to know for this test or this essay?” In between those periods is the time you let the kids get comfortable with the material.

Constructivism and civics

Matt Johnson: The biggest deficit among my students has been knowledge of the [political] process. That may be true of almost anybody in high school. They understand how the three branches work together [but] there are a lot of misconceptions about where the Supreme Court comes from and [why] the Supreme Court never changes. They just haven’t studied it. I think that they also feel–at least in this school–a certain disenfranchised attitude that their vote doesn’t count. [Ed. Note: Washington, D.C. is not a state. It has one Delegate in the House of Representatives (who cannot vote) and no Senator. Its citizens vote for presidential electors and pay federal income taxes.] That’s a tough thing to win kids over with, especially with what happened in Florida in 2000. There is definitely a jaded view of the process. Hopefully in discussing it, they can at least understand how these things come about.

The use of group learning and simulations puts the kids into the lesson and they become active participants. I think you can make a connection to them becoming active participants in society. Their status in my class is almost one of equals, at least with each other, definitely, and at times with me. I think that teaches them to speak their mind, to ask questions. There is not a fear factor that I’m going to judge [that] what they do is wrong or out of place. My hope is that I’m teaching them to become active citizens, also. I have had some students who have called me to let me know that they are working on local elections and I’ve actually met students at the Metro [handing] out flyers for their candidate of choice. I’ve had a lot more kids tell me that they are now thinking about [majoring in] political science. I don’t know if that has anything to do with my class, but I’m going to brag about it.

I would take great pride in knowing that every student, or a large percentage of the students I’ve taught in civics, are active participants, and not just in voting because, as you know, this population doesn’t have a great track record with turnout and they can make a big difference. I hope that they continue to vote, pay attention to politics, get involved, work on a campaign, join organizations. They don’t necessarily have to run for office, but be active and involved and informed citizens. I haven’t done any studies to see if they vote, but I try to register every senior.

Creating groups

Matt Johnson: For this lesson, one of the first things that I sat down and thought of was how I was going to pair groups together. I think kids work extremely well in what you would call a mixed grouping–kids of different abilities, different strengths–so that’s the very first step. Hopefully you’re putting kids who can work well together and bring different things to each group. There’s definitely some work one-on-one–the kids do have their own assignments–but they are working in a group sharing ideas and there’s the larger issue of communicating ideas to both the small group and a larger group. When I’m trying to assign groups for an activity like this, especially at the end of the year, I have a pretty good feel for the type of student I’m dealing with and I’ll try and mix things up by gender because I think that’s important. Most of the groups are split about 50:50. The other thing I look for are leaders who are vocal students. [I] put [a] more vocal person in each group. [I] also split up the kids that I know are going to do the work. They’re going to be focused [and] don’t need a lot of teacher supervision. Then the kids who are more easily distracted divide, so hopefully you’ll have some interesting and productive pairings going on.

To be successful in your groupings at the high school level–these are all seniors–you have to be careful that if you assign things as products, they don’t fall on one student. I’ve learned through trial and error that kids come back and say, “You know, Mr. Johnson, I had to do all the work. So-and-so didn’t do anything.” So one of the things that I try and do is make everyone responsible for their own version of the finished product. They can work together, they can collaborate, but when the day comes, they all [need to turn in] something finished. If there is a child who doesn’t do the work, it hasn’t fallen on anybody else’s shoulders.

When you are grouping students, you should be conscious of mixing abilities and mixing personalities. In September or October, when you first begin this process, you may not have a real firm grasp of who’s what and what kind of kids will work well together so you do a random grouping and you keep an eye on it and you make notes to yourself [about] who’s working well together [and] who might be better suited in another group. You may even make some quick adjustments. Through monitoring and moving around, you’ll find out who works together and who doesn’t.

Guiding the process

Matt Johnson: During this type of lesson the teacher really has to help guide students—push them to think about things in a different way—keeping in mind the task in the sense that if you see that they’re debating an issue that’s irrelevant, you kind of bring them back. You can also move them forward by suggesting new ideas to talk about and discuss. You have to be active as you move around, both in listening and reacting to what’s being said in the groups. Some groups are fine and when you come to them you realize they’re doing everything you want them to do. Others may stray a little bit and they’re not where you want them to be, so you have to prod them a little bit.

I think remaining neutral [is important], especially when you’re questioning kids and you’re pushing them to think about things in other ways. I don’t want to take ownership of any of these ideas. I just throw them out there—have them think about it.

One of the things I look for [is whether] they are answering the questions that I’d hoped they would focus on. If they are going off on a tangent, I try and bring them back to the broader question. Answering questions that kids have obviously is the first thing you want to do. But then, if a group is struggling—they’re sort of blank faces—ask questions. Try and focus them on the worksheets. Steer them back if they’re exploring an issue that doesn’t really need to be discussed in such detail. I use questioning to elicit some other responses, to try and channel them one way or another. If I have ideas of my own—what I’d like the constitution to look like—I might pose some hypothetical or take what they have and ask them “Hey, where did that come from—what country?” and keep pushing some facts from one of the countries to jump start them.

I noticed just in the first couple of days watching the kids discuss within their groups things that we had looked at back in January and February. They were recalling some practices in the British system and the French system. Why? Because they had had to do individual assignments and present their assignments to the class. So there is ownership right from the beginning. I think that kind of discussion that we began the very first day wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given the kids more of a role in the learning process.

My role in the (constitutional convention) is to mediate and be almost a recording person, not put my opinion into anything. Keep things moving. Try to keep an eye on the process.

Debate rules

Matt Johnson: I felt that after the kids had made a commitment to this unit by completing their first work sheet–the executive branch–they were ready to think seriously about how the debate should take place and what procedures should be for creating and adopting ideas for the constitution. So we began the [second day] with those two ideas and opened the floor up for debate.

The students made the decision that the plurality system will rule what makes it into our constitution. I kind of hoped that a majority in a run-off system might be the choice they would make. But in some ways it’ll be easier to get through the constitution–at least to put the final document together. That may differ from class to class. You may have one group saying it has to be a majority or it has to be a three-fourths majority, but they decided whatever receives the most votes we will adopt. They also decided to keep debate limited per group and per person to allow more ideas on to the floor.

Gauging success

Matt Johnson: If I can look around and see that everybody is engaged, that’ll tell me that it’s working. If there are a lot of questions that kids are asking, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not working. If the questions are on task and they are appropriate, then I’ll feel that it’s working also.

Teaching challenges

Matt Johnson: It’s that initial introduction, where I stop talking and it’s now on them. That’s usually the hardest part. There’s the natural reaction of “Well, what do you really want us to do?” [or] “I’m not sure. I’m not clear on what you’re asking us to do.” That’s hard in the sense that I’m going to have to move around to all the groups and be fairly quick about my movements. If you stay with one group too long, the other folks, if they’re not clear, are going to sit there and may lose some time.

Some of these students are pretty contentious and will have headstrong ideas. Whether we can craft compromise on some items is uncharted waters, I guess.

In the simulation I don’t know the outcome but that’s not a bad thing. The process, I think, is really one of the more valuable lessons.

Lessons learned

Matt Johnson: Looking back, I thought they’d get farther along than they did. But you never know until you try it what is achievable in a given period of time. If I had to do it again, maybe I would break that first worksheet into two parts so they’d have a sense of accomplishment, but it’s always okay to have it as a homework assignment to finish up.

One of the surprises is always how they interpret what I’m asking them to do. There were a few questions that I was surprised they were confused by. I was surprised by how much they brought to the assignment. They really knew a lot more than I had expected them to know on the first day. I was happy to see that they had a fairly good command of some of the executive branch structures around the world.

I think you could ask fewer questions of the students, and then hope that more comes out in the larger debate; leave some things for the convention floor, so to speak. That way you could spend more time on the debate, which could be positive, but I’m a little fearful that if they don’t have some details [the debate] wouldn’t be as thorough. [I might] stop 15, 20 minutes into [the group discussions], checking to see if everybody’s doing okay, but I was surprised at how well they were focused so I didn’t feel a need to stop and get everybody’s attention.

I was a little surprised, but I guess in hindsight not that shocked, that we adopted a lot of things that were pretty close to our American political system. The ideas were different but when push comes to shove you go with what you know, so we had a president with two terms and a legislative branch that has two houses. That seemed very similar to our congress.

Advice to other teachers

Matt Johnson: You’ve got to put your time in before you introduce the unit. Think it through. But you also have to be ready to react and be flexible with what the class is doing. If they’re not moving as fast as you’d hoped, you have to adjust. Expect the unexpected. You really don’t know what will be the end result. There is no magic final constitution or end product; that’s part of the dynamic of the class that you’re involved with.

To be successful I think you have to be aware first of all the groupings, then you also really have to think about what you are asking the kids to do. Is it impossible? Is it something that the kids can achieve? Is it going to be taxing enough that they’re going to really have to think about it and be serious with the task? I think those are things that you learn as you do them. I could have changed one worksheet if I had realized I’d made some mistakes–tightened it up or made it more demanding. You can do that. You have to be ready to be flexible.

His background

Matt Johnson: When I first graduated from college, I did odds-and-ends jobs. I moved to Washington, D.C., [and] worked for a couple of political think tanks, sort of as an intern. Then I made my way into working as a legislative librarian for a law firm and did that for four or five years and enjoyed learning about the practice on the Hill. Then I said, “I have to do something where I’m my own boss.” So I took courses at night and then student taught at a junior high here in D.C. and the principal put in a call and I got an offer to come here. So that’s how I ended up at Banneker. I had studied political science in college so civics was the natural fit.

I began teaching at Banneker ten years ago. I began teaching with the idea that teachers should be the center of the learning process–the traditional way. That’s how I had been taught. I had had a course that was reinforcing another way, which is to turn things over to the kids. When I student taught, the teacher that I worked with was pretty good about cooperative learning. But once [you get your] own class, you fall back on what you assume is the best way and gives you the most control. After the first year, and even during the first year of my teaching, [I began to] notice things. Kids weren’t retaining information. They might do well on a test on Friday but when you went back and talked about it or related the material a week later, there were blank stares. They hadn’t really taken any ownership in what we had studied. In lecturing, if you’re observant, you notice [when] kids aren’t paying attention. They’re doing other work. They are nodding off. So there are a couple of things that really focused me that this wasn’t working, and there are other ways to do it. I realized if I have control [over the class] it’s maybe through boredom. So I just started to go back to some of the things that I had been exposed to–getting kids into groups, doing projects in class.

I approach any lesson [asking], “How can I have the kids manipulate this? What can I do to get them more involved?” Because these are seniors, they’re very calculating. They’ll just read it, learn it, and forget it and move on to the next topic. That’s not what I want. I’d like them to continue to learn, continue to add to what they already know. Through trial and error, I realized you can’t just be the ‘sage on the stage.’ As I started to evolve and do more cooperative learning, I could see a greater understanding of the total picture when we would look at a unit. And to be honest, the kids had more fun and I had more fun. I still have to know the material and I still have to reinforce what we’ve done in a cooperative learning activity, but it doesn’t require me to stand up and regurgitate it in front of the class for three straight days. I think it’s just more enjoyable as a teacher and I think the kids enjoy it also. They have a bigger stake in what goes on every day.

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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