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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Controversial Public Policy Issues Controversial Public Policy Issues — Lesson Plan

The Lesson Plan section contains everything you will need to fully understand the featured lesson. It has the following sections:

  • Context presents background information on the teacher, the school, and the course in which the lesson was taught;
  • Lesson-Specific Standards identifies the national standards from the Center for Civic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies that correlate to the featured lesson;
  • Teaching the Lesson provides an activity-by-activity description of how the lesson was organized;
  • Assessment includes both the lesson assessment tools and the rubrics associated with them;
  • Lesson Materials contains any printed information or worksheets distributed to students as part of the lesson; and
  • Resources are additional items and/or articles that may further help you adopt these strategies in your own classroom.


JoEllen Ambrose, who has taught social studies for 23 years, currently teaches the ninth-grade U.S. Government course and the senior-level Law course at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minnesota. While at Champlin Park, she has been a department chair, worked on several curriculum committees, supervised student teachers, and developed a mock trial team. Previously, she taught political science and geography at a local junior high school and was co-director of the Minnesota Center for Community Legal Education at the Hamline University School of Law. JoEllen Ambrose holds a Bachelor of Science degree with high honors in secondary social studies education from the College of Education at the University of Minnesota and a Juris Doctor (magna cum laude) degree from the William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.

The school district that includes Champlin Park High School is one of the most rapidly growing areas in the nation with a population that has an average age of 29.9 years. It is primarily a working-class population with the lowest per capita income in the metropolitan area. The school enrolled 3,028 students in 2001-2002 and is among the largest high schools in the state; 16 percent of its students are people of color. Its four-period day schedule (also called a block or extended-day schedule) allows students to take the equivalent of 16 full courses each year. The school has won many state and national awards and has an extremely low student drop-out rate (roughly 3.5 percent).

The Law course covers both constitutional and criminal law and is taught daily over a nine-week period in 85-minute periods. The course text is Street Law: A Course in Practical Law, Sixth Edition, by Lee P. Arbetman and Edward L. O’Brien (West Educational Publishing, 1999).

Lesson-Specific Standards

This lesson addresses the national standards listed below.

From the Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government (1994):

Students should be able to explain:

  • The extent to which Americans have internalized the values and principles of the Constitution and attempted to make its ideals realities.
  • The importance of knowledge to competent and responsible participation in American democracy.

Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions:

  • On issues in which fundamental values and principles may be in conflict.
  • About issues concerning the disparities between American ideals and realities.
  • On the role and importance of law in the American political system.
  • On current issues regarding the judicial production of individual rights.
  • On issues regarding personal rights.
  • On issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights.
  • On issues regarding the personal responsibilities of citizens in American constitutional democracy.
  • On the importance to American constitutional democracy of dispositions that foster thoughtful and effective participation in public affairs.

From the National Council for the Social Studies’s Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (1994):

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for:

  • The study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
  • Ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Teaching the Lesson: Overview, Goals, and Planning

In this 12th-grade law class at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minnesota, JoEllen Ambrose engages students in a structured discussion of a highly controversial issue–racial profiling–and connects student learning both to their study of due process in constitutional law and to police procedure in their study of criminal law. She begins by having students individually complete an opinion poll, which they then discuss as a group, realizing that the issue of profiling becomes increasingly complex as examples of it get closer to their personal experience. By physically engaging the students (they move around from “Agree” to “Disagree” to “Undecided” positions as the discussion proceeds), they get both a visceral and visual sense of the controversy. The poll is primarily a motivating activity to engage students’ interest. Next, working in pairs, they delve into studying a research packet that JoEllen Ambrose has prepared, reading local and national sources on the topic of racial profiling. The next activity pairs students in a structured debate. The framework for this debate, which comes from the Center for Cooperative Learning at the University of Minnesota, is highly specific with regard to both time and task and is designed to have each partnership argue both sides of the issue. Each group of four is next charged with the task of developing a consensus position on the issue and presenting it to the class. A debriefing discussion completes the lesson.

Students will:

  • Understand the tension that exists in our democracy between the government’s interest in promoting public safety and individual rights.
  • Take and defend positions regarding various criminal justice issues.
  • Define, explain, and evaluate racial profiling as a law enforcement tool.
  • Debate both positions on the controversial topic of racial profiling with support for each.
  • Develop a consensus position on how racial profiling as a law enforcement tool should be used.

JoEllen Ambrose wanted her students to come away from this lesson more interested in looking at issues in-depth than at simplistic solutions. She also would like students to have a deeper understanding of what individual rights are in our society and how the power of the government helps us to live safely, but can also be abused.

Prior to this lesson, JoEllen Ambrose’s students had a unit on constitutional law, in which they studied the judicial system, including how the courts work, trials, alternative dispute resolution, and appellate procedures. They have discussed due process as it relates to the right to die, and participated in a simulation of a trial, in which they role-played lawyers and argued in front of judges a position on an issue of constitutional law. More recently, they have had an overview of criminal law. They have taken a statistical look at crime in America and then focused on various elements of crime. Currently they are studying criminal procedure (police investigation, being stopped, searches, pretrial hearings, the trial, sentencing, prison, and so forth) and what happens at each step. JoEllen Ambrose introduces major topics through the appropriate chapter in the course text (in this case, Chapters 12 and 13 of Street Law: A Course in Practical Law by Lee P. Arbetman and Edward L. O’Brien. Sixth Edition. West Educational Publishing, 1999). Students also have seen a video that highlighted police procedures in such situations as drunk driving and illegal drugs.

Some teachers will find it useful to introduce and discuss some controversial vocabulary words prior to starting this lesson, e.g., racial, racist, discrimination.


Activity 1: Student Opinion Survey

The first technique used in this lesson is a polling activity. Its purpose is to get students thinking about the topic, offering opinions, defending their positions, and stimulating their interest. JoEllen Ambrose wants students to draw on their own perspectives and what they’ve heard in the news, and to think about the opinions that they bring to the topic. In the polling activity, students consider five statements that describe situations related to racial profiling. Each time, they get a chance to stand up for and defend a position. If they’re not quite sure what their position is, they can initially choose to be “undecided” and later move in the direction they want to support.

Prepare the room by creating three large signs. One should say “Agree.” A second should say “Disagree.” The third should say “Undecided.” Place these signs in different areas of the room so that at the appropriate time, students can gather around or under them.

Introduce the lesson by noting that their study of criminal procedure to date has revealed that our criminal justice system operates with two goals that must be balanced–to provide for order and safety in our society and to protect individual rights. These goals might also be elicited through discussion and illustrated by the depiction of scales on the board. Explain to students that they will begin the lesson by examining situations in which this tension exists and explore where they think the scales should be tipped.

Hand out the survey titled What’s Your Opinion? and direct students to complete it individually.

Go through each of the five statements, each time inviting students to share their views by standing by the sign that most closely reflects their view. The five statements are:

  • Police should be given a free hand to apprehend those who commit criminal acts.
  • Police officers should be able to stop motorists of certain racial or ethnic groups because officers believe that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crime.
  • It is okay for police to stop young drivers for no other reason than the fact that the driver is young.
  • In order to fight terrorism, law enforcement should be allowed to randomly stop people who may fit the profile of suspected terrorists.
  • Our constitutional rights are our only protection against the unlimited power of the police and other government officials.

Note that students who have selected “Undecided” will be asked to choose “Agree” or “Disagree” after a discussion.

Ask three students to defend why they agreed, then ask three of those who disagreed to state their opinions. Invite the “Undecideds” to ask further questions or make comments and then direct them to make a choice, move to their new position, and tell why they moved. Ask students if they found patterns in their answers. Do they lean towards “safety” or “individual rights”? It is important to provide sufficient time for all students who want to speak to do so and to provide a climate in which students feel comfortable sharing personal experiences that might relate to this topic.

Tell students to jot down their initial thoughts to the three questions at the bottom of the survey:

  • What constitutional rights do we value most highly in our justice system?
  • When do the government’s constitutional duties outweigh these rights?
  • Who should decide the delicate balance between these tensions? The public? The police? Elected officials? Courts?

If time is short, this part of the activity could be assigned for homework.

JoEllen Ambrose found that students’ answers became more complex as the statement touched on issues that might affect them personally.


Activity 2: Teams Prepare for Debate

In this activity, students will begin research about the topic itself. JoEllen Ambrose prepared a research packet of 11 articles (see Bibliography of Research Articles) that helped students look at the topic from different perspectives, including both national and local sources, and directed students to select a research partner. Some teachers may wish to create the student pairings and/or to have the students find their own articles.

Begin the activity by asking students: What is racial profiling? Does it exist? Where? When? Is it a good practice? Why or why not? These questions are designed to move students through Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives in the cognitive domain from simple definition through analysis to evaluation. This discussion is also a good time for students to relate their own experiences and to compare their own communities with the national picture.

Advise students that in the next activity they will need to be able to support a particular position. In pairs, students should begin to explore the topic in greater depth by reading the articles. JoEllen Ambrose allowed the student pairs to devise their own methods for doing the research; in some cases, each partner took responsibility for half of the articles. This activity could be completed as homework, but if you choose this option, be sure to provide about 20 minutes the next day for students to refresh their memories and pull together their positions.

JoEllen Ambrose calls this activity “a civil conversation” in which students take a big controversial public policy topic and define it, explain it, and evaluate it.


Activity 3: Academic Structured Debate

The next activity is a structured debate, or structured controversy, which is a small-group debate format. The framework for the discussion has very specific time parameters that add up to 41 minutes. The Finale, which takes an additional five minutes or more, is described in Activity 4. (Note: Some teachers have found that once students are familiar with the format, the time limits can be shortened, and the general framework can be used for quick looks at important issues.)

Read and post on the board Position A and Position B in the controversy. If possible, place these statements on opposite sides of the classroom, so they can serve as graphic anchors for each group.

Position A: Racial profiling is an effective law enforcement tool and should be used by police whenever they think it most helpful. Police officers should be able to stop and search members of certain racial or ethnic groups because officers believe that these groups are more likely than others to commit certain types of crime.

Position B: Racial profiling should never become an acceptable law enforcement practice because it infringes on individual constitutional liberties. Only when there is particular individualized suspicion based on a person’s actions should officers have the authority to stop and search.

Distribute to students Racial Profiling: A Structured Controversy, which describes each step of the process and notes how much time should be given to it, and Structured Academic Controversy: Student Expectations and Evaluation, a two-page rubric that you should review with the class before beginning the structured discussion.

Put pairs in groups of four with all Position As on the right facing Position Bs on the left. JoEllen Ambrose paired partner groups to create debate groups of four (two sets of partners). Although she had allowed students to pick their partners, she chose the debate groups to ensure that diverse opinions would emerge. Note that each group of four works independently with one partnership presenting to the other; they do not present to the whole class.

Give students about 20 minutes to work with their partners to delve more deeply into the issue they have been studying and prepare for the debate. Assure students that it does not matter which position they are assigned first because they will each argue both sides before the class is over, supporting each case with evidence they have gathered in Activity 2.

Follow Steps One, Two, and Three of the structured controversy format (See Racial Profiling: A Structured Controversy). The teacher’s role here is to be the timekeeper and listen to the variety of arguments generated by the groups. During the discussion phase, encourage students to ask clarifying questions of one another, e.g., what do you want to know more about? What was confusing to you?

Then have all students stand up and literally switch positions, so that those who argued for Position A now need to put forth arguments that support Position B. Repeat the structured debate process. To help students change sides and prepare for developing consensus, some teachers have found it helpful to have them say, “We were thinking, and you were right and we were wrong because . . .”


Activity 4: Develop Team Consensus

Have each team of four try to reach a consensus position on the issues discussed. The big idea here is to decide which side the evidence best supports. All groups should write out their consensus argument on a sheet of paper (see Consensus Sheet for Group) to be posted on the board. The statement should indicate if the group supports racial profiling and if so, under what conditions and in what situations.


Activity 5: Teams Present Consensus Positions

On the board draw one long line with Position A written at one end and Position B written at the other end. Ask each group to have one person share their group’s consensus position and the reasons that support it. Also ask the groups to decide where they want their position placed on the continuum between Position A and Position B.

Begin the presentation portion of this activity by asking which group’s position is similar to Position B, and have them make their presentation. Then ask if any group has a position they think is somewhere in the middle and allow them to present. Because there may be as many as eight groups, the “middle” positions may stack on top of one other. The visual presented by this experience should show the class that most groups find some middle ground and situations on controversial public policy issues.


Activity 6: Large-Group Discussion

Champlin Park High School uses a block-period schedule with 85-minute classes. This allowed JoEllen Ambrose to complete this lesson in three class periods. Teachers with more conventional schedules would most likely need to divide these activities over four or five days. Consider using Activities 1 and 2 during the first class period, continue the research in Activity 2 on the second day, use Activity 3 (the structured debate) on day three, do consensus building and presentation (Activities 4 and 5) on day four, and debriefing (Activity 6) on day 5. Although, in JoEllen Ambrose’s opinion, separating the debriefing from the consensus building activity is less desirable because of the time lag, in many schools it will be a necessary adaptation.

JoEllen Ambrose has used this basic lesson plan for a variety of topics and diverse student populations, including students in an alternative school who had a considerable amount of life experience to bring to the discussion. The students seen in the lesson are all seniors; thus, JoEllen Ambrose allowed them to select their own partners, although she selected the small groups to ensure that a diversity of opinion would emerge. Younger students may need more direction in selecting partners. JoEllen Ambrose also conducted the Internet search that resulted in the research packet she distributed to students. This enabled her to control the reading level, length, sophistication, and bias of the articles. Teachers of honors students may wish to have them conduct their own research. Additional time would need to be scheduled for this approach.


In addition to requiring students to complete a self-evaluation (see below), JoEllen Ambrose assesses their learning of the topic in a unit test using a traditional essay format. She has students reconsider the big questions they have worked on throughout the lesson: What is racial profiling? Why does it exist and how does it exist? When should it be used? Students also are asked to state their personal final position on the issue and discuss how they came to it.

Lesson Materials

Below you will find the materials JoEllen Ambrose used for her lesson on Controversial Public Policy Issues. You can download these documents and print them out for your own use.


Below you will find additional resources pertaining to this lesson.

O’Brien, Ed. “In War, Is Law Silent? Security and Freedom After September 11,” Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 7, November/December 2001, pp. 419-25.

Parker, Walter C. and William Zumeta. “Toward an Aristocracy of Everyone: Policy Study in the High School Curriculum,” Theory and Research in Social Education, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 9-44.

Singleton, Laurel. “Following a Tragic Event: A Necessary Challenge for Civic Educators,” Social Education, Vol. 65, No. 7, November/December 2001, pp. 413-18.

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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