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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Controversial Public Policy Issues Controversial Public Policy Issues — Student Perspectives

The students whose interview comments are excerpted here were seniors enrolled in a one-semester law course at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minnesota. Here they discuss their experience participating in a structured academic controversy on the topic of racial profiling.

Discussing controversial topics

Becky: I think it’s very good to be discussing [controversial topics] because it shows how different people in the world think and it allows us to understand other people’s points of view better. For some of those questions (Ed. Note: The teacher had students complete an opinion poll), I was like, “How could anyone agree with this?” and then some of the agree people would [make their case], and I was like, “Oh, that makes sense.” It helps for us to get our opinions out. We’re allowed to state our opinions and it’s not in a conflicting place. It’s a safe place, and nothing’s going to happen.

I’ve found with a controversial subject, people get more excited about it because it’s happening now and people have very different views. The discussion goes very well because people have researched. If they believe in something, they’re going to research it more and they’re going to find out everything they want to know. It’s an easier discussion because people have prepared for it. If we had just [been assigned to] read the book, [some] people aren’t going to read it, and if we had just filled out the worksheet, there are people in the class that are going to copy. Because it’s a controversial issue, I know I researched a lot last night. If it had been something I didn’t care about or a worksheet, I would have just gone to bed. Because it was something that I felt strongly about, I wanted to make sure that I got my point across with facts. I am more emotionally involved and mentally.

Rayad: It’s great to hear everyone’s viewpoints in the classroom, and it’s structured so that we’re not fighting with each other. We’re getting our viewpoints out and it’s a lot of expression. When you’re interacting with people more, you don’t fall asleep in class. You learn more. It sticks with you better. You are able to retain what you’re learning because it’s more memorable. It’s kind of like taking the words from the textbook and bringing them to real life. Instead of just reading it and doing mundane work, which gets boring and students lose interest, you make it interesting by taking it out, making it a discussion, a debate. Then you don’t actually look at the text as much but you bring the text to life. That’s how I think you keep students more interested in it so it works out very well. Throughout life, you have to look at controversial things. You can’t avoid them. Avoiding it just [puts] off the inevitable. By dealing with it now, we’ll have some experience with situations that will come up later in life.

Renee: I’m a very outspoken person with my peers and it’s really kind of weird to have to listen to them and respect them and put all your opinions together. It’s really hard, especially with teenagers, to be able to compromise, and everybody interprets everything differently. When we said high traffic areas, some people didn’t know what we meant by that so we had to be more specific and it was really complicated to bring all of our ideas together. We just kind of blended it all together and tried to make sense of it so that everybody agreed with everything that was written on the final page. If there’s one objection, then it’s not correct.

Robin: I always like to share my opinion and see what other people think and where I fit in with that. I feel pretty comfortable with it. Studying controversial topics is what society is made up of. None of us is ever going to completely agree on anything but when you openly discuss these things, progress is made and people can make steps towards living together in society better, and that’s what this is all about. Civics and government is designed for us to live together better. So if we didn’t discuss controversial topics, we’d be missing the point of the class.

Racial profiling

Becky: When we first started this [lesson], I didn’t really know a whole lot about racial profiling. I have not really been directly affected by it. It’s not something that I think about all the time. So I didn’t really have a whole lot of opinions. On the news I’ve heard suspects say they were pulled over just simply because of their race. Now that I’ve started researching and discussing it, I find that in some instances, the cops are justifying [using racial profiling]. In others, it totally seems wrong. If they pull people over simply because of their race, that’s not right. I don’t agree with that at all. Some people are saying the people who are getting pulled over are more likely to be of a certain race, whatever it may be. To me, that still doesn’t really even seem right. If you’re going to pull someone over for speeding, you should pull everyone over for speeding. You can’t pick and choose whom you’re going to pull over for speeding. It should be pretty much even. But then again, I see the police’s point of view. They [say] if you’re more likely to commit a crime because of this, and they have a profile, and the profile happens to involve race, that kind of makes sense if they’re going to be cutting down on crime. So it’s kind of a hard one. I want to see crime go down, but yet people have their rights and they have a right not to be pulled over simply because of their race. It was really interesting to see how people felt. It seemed like the students, and me included when it affected me personally, didn’t really like racial profiling, but when it all of a sudden dealt with terrorism, people were like, “Oh, it’s okay if we’re saving our country.”

Joseph: At first, it was kind of weird because I didn’t have any views on racial profiling. I’m still uncertain. I guess I lean more towards partial racial profiling, like they can use it some of the time in certain areas. If there are high crime areas, they can use racial profiling in that area to find suspects. But I don’t think it should be used all of the time. Racial profiling kind of does deprive you of liberty. You shouldn’t be discriminated against because of the color of your skin.

The papers she presented us to review the night before seemed biased towards racial profiling [being] overused. So it’s easier to support that it shouldn’t be used because there were so many statistics that show that it’s [used] a lot more in Minnesota than anywhere in the country. But there were other facts supporting the other side that show that there are computers that police officers use to show high crime areas. If the minority is the majority of the people in that area, then obviously it’s going to show that those are the majority of the people that are going to get pulled over.

Rayad: I’ve been pulled over a few times. One time I did wonder about it. I [was] dating a girl. She lived in a more affluent neighborhood, in a suburb. It was later at night. I was driving a really nice car. It was my mom’s car. The officer asked me the 20-question bit. “What are you doing in this? You live in Coon Rapids. What are you doing in North Oaks at this time of night? Do you know anyone here?” Eventually, I was getting frustrated. I got sick of the 20 questions and I asked him, “If you don’t mind me asking, what did I do wrong? Why did you pull me over?” He didn’t give me any reason for pulling me over. He let me go. Couldn’t say I was speeding, no taillight out, wasn’t swerving. I was just in this nice neighborhood, where it didn’t look like I belonged. You question it once in a while. Of course, the police are there to protect the community. So there’s a balance somewhere, and I guess I didn’t take it personally.

Since September 11, 2001, it’s been a very big issue as to how far you go before you can infringe on people’s individual rights. Every citizen has rights, and the question of national security and human rights has been coming up. Personally, I haven’t seen too much of a difference. I’m kind of nervous about flying because I’m wondering how things are going to go. My dad flew to New York, and he got some looks when he was walking onto the airplane. They searched him very carefully, but I guess that’s what you’re going to have to deal with. One way or another, we need to have peace of mind. We need to live in a secure, safe place for everyone. If the only way to accomplish that is to take some extra precautions, that’s fine, but we can’t step over those lines. I guess we have to put faith in our legislature to make sure that the checks and balances of government are in place properly so that they’ll protect our rights. That’s about all you can do.

Renee: Reading through the articles, I found it really disturbing, not so much for the Caucasian race, but for the minority races, because the ratio of blacks to whites for being pulled over in Minneapolis [was 19 to 1]. I didn’t realize how big of a problem it was. I’m not a racist person, but it’s really scary for me to go down [to Lake Street] just to see all the different people that are down there because I’ve never been exposed to it. In Champlin, you don’t really have a whole lot of different minorities. We debated whether or not racial profiling was okay and we came to the consensus as a group that it was okay in some circumstances but in most, it was not okay because it hurts a lot of people if you pull them over and they’re innocent.

We did have a minority in our group. She had something to say because I think that people don’t really look at it in a different way unless it’s directed toward them. Like we all totally disagreed with being pulled over for being young, but being pulled over because you’re from the Middle East right now was okay. We found that that was very disturbing because nobody really looks at it unless it affects him or her. We had to look at it as if it was affecting us–as if we were one of them–and we found that it would be a big problem because it hurts a lot of people.

We said that in a major time of crisis, profiling was okay. Right now I think that the whole U.S. is really biased towards the Middle East and we don’t like them because of the whole September 11, 2001, thing. We decided that during times of crisis, which this would be considered, they have the right to profile Middle Eastern people to see if they were part of the terrorist attacks. We also said that during a non-time of crisis you shouldn’t be able to do that, and that airports and international borders shouldn’t have any racial profiling. You should check everyone for anything, no matter how old you are or what race you are, what ethnic background you have. In high traffic areas, they should have partial profiling, not racial, but partial with probable cause because unless they have probable cause, they should not be able to pull anybody over or stop anybody based on their race or background. That’s pretty much what we came to as a group.

Robin: I’ve never really experienced [racial profiling] myself, so I’m not that familiar with it, but from what we’ve discussed in class, it seems like, for people who are minorities, it can be a problem. I don’t really agree with it in general. I mean, if a police officer or someone is basing his or her actions completely on someone’s race and has no other merit, then I think it’s wrong.

Lessons learned

Joseph: I guess it makes you see the viewpoints of other people. Your thoughts are based [on] your own personal experience but [when] you realize the way other people feel about it, it broadens you. Now I’ll feel for the minorities because I understand where they’re coming from–that they do get pulled over more often. It makes you see their side of the story more, and it helps you by seeing that you’re not the only one that gets pulled over because you’re under age. Other people who are older than you are getting pulled over because of the color of their skin so you can kind of relate to them in a way but obviously I don’t think it’s as bad for us as it is for them. It just shows you their side of the story.

Rayad: I used to be for cameras [in squad cars], for another way for the police to look at things. As I go through it, we can’t restrict our police officers as much as we do sometimes. We need to let them go on their own discretion, make their own decisions. If we don’t do that, we’re limiting them. When they’re limited, they can’t do their job. They can’t get out there and protect people. So my opinion has changed on things. I question if cameras are a good way to solve the problem. They’re expensive to install, to maintain. [They] really don’t do much. Maybe in a fight or if there is controversial evidence in court, you can see it, but other than that, I don’t see any real value to it.

Learning how to listen to people is a big thing. You have to enter a discussion with an open mind. Another important thing to look at is don’t avoid everything controversial in life. Just take a stab at it, or else you’ll never learn.

The other thing that really strikes me is you see so many adults–this kind of Jerry Springer mentality that we have in our country–just fighting. Here you are really looking at the two sides and trying to say we may have differences, but how can we [work things out]. We need to progress as a society. We can’t just go back to the barbaric way. We have to be more understanding, be more open. There are always two sides to every story. You can fight and then there are going to be more problems. The situation is never resolved. By talking things out, by looking at both perspectives, you can come to a solution.

In every setting, I guess in life, whether dealing with people out in the community, in a business setting, in work, you’re going to have to learn how to interact with people. I think that even though you’re not always going to be dealing with controversial topics, you still have to learn how to work well with other people. That’s just a basic skill that everyone needs to acquire. Classes like this, discussions like this, activities like this really help to build those skills.

Renee: It made me realize that you have to listen to every person and what everyone has to say. You can’t just say, “I’m right. You’re wrong.” You have to make compromises in life, and I think that’s going to help me a lot because I’ve always kind of gotten my way. It made me realize that if everybody got his or her way, there wouldn’t be any justice in society. It made me realize that everybody has rights no matter who they are [or] what they do. If you are living on the streets, you still have rights under the Constitution. Whether you’re living in a mansion and you think you’re God, you have to follow the same [laws] as that person living on the streets, and you have to abide by them to make society work.

I wouldn’t want to be in Congress’s position because there are so many different controversies. When you say profiling, [most people] associate it with race or age, and there are so many other things that go with it. I would not want to make that decision because there’s going to be a case that comes up and says, “You said it was okay for this one. Why isn’t it okay for this one?”

I’ve never really understood policy-making and what Congress exactly did. After I experienced the law class and we did the Supreme Court and trials, I realize now what the Supreme Court and the Congress have to do to make policies and laws, and it’s really hard. I understand more how they work as a whole. It helps me understand why they have them and whom the laws protect and why. We did a prayer in school, and I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. That was my case during Supreme Court, and we realized that we really shouldn’t have prayer in school.

Robin: It kind of makes me realize that I’m part of society, too, and that my actions and what I do and feel will play a part in the rest of the world–maybe not so much now, but once I get more involved in society as an adult. When I start voting this fall, I’ll actually be a part of the voice of society.

Working in groups and with partners

Becky: As you grow up, you’re almost always working with someone. It’s very rare that you’re ever just going to sit somewhere and not work. Working in a group allows you to see how other people think, and they bring more things to the surface and more issues you hadn’t thought of and that’s what’s going to happen in the real world. You’re going to see that people have different views.

[My partner and I] have been friends since ninth grade and we work very well together. What’s kind of interesting is that I found out she has different views than I do. I kind of knew that going into this, and I thought that would be good because we would really be able to have a discussion. If someone had the exact same views I did, it wouldn’t be any fun. We wouldn’t learn anything and grow but she’s bringing up questions that I hadn’t thought of and she also has a different experience. She lives in Dayton, so it’s a little smaller town. I live in Champlin. That’s the town where supposedly the cops pull over all the young kids. We have different experiences that we’re bringing together and she’s a very good partner. She’ll go home and do all of her homework, which is very nice. I hate getting stuck with someone that isn’t prepared.

Joseph: I think if you do it in a group, you see more viewpoints than just your own, and it’s easier to come up with your own viewpoints because you listen to what other people are saying. It formulates ideas in your head of what to say. Individual worksheets sometimes tend to be more boring. When you’re in a group, it helps liven the activity a little bit. When other people tell you what they feel, it helps get your thought process going, so you can get better ideas instead of just your bias. That might actually help you to decide which way you feel. When you work by yourself, it’s kind of boring, not as fun as when you work with other people.

Rayad: We’re good friends, and basically we got together on this because we know we work [well] with each other. We also like to look at both sides of everything, and we like to get all of the facts together before we take a stand on it.

Renee: I really like the hands-on activities and the group work because you have to work with other people and form sort of a teamwork. A lot of teachers don’t do that. They believe in, “Here’s the assignment. Do the book work and your test will be tomorrow.” She gives us time to work it out as a class, and we get to discuss with other kids. Sometimes kids explain things better than a teacher because they’re at the same understanding level as you are, and I think it’s a really good idea that she has us in the group work because it helps a lot of us out.

Robin: You’re getting other people’s ideas and viewpoints and it’s introducing you to things that you might not have thought of just on your own, so it’s helpful. I don’t really know what [my partner’s] opinion on racial profiling is. Neither of us has really experienced it for ourselves so we’re kind of both in the same position. But it’s something we find interesting and are willing to look into more and see how it’s affecting others.

JoEllen Ambrose's teaching style

Becky: Ms. Ambrose is pretty easy-going. She’s kind of fun to be around. She makes the class exciting. If someone asks a question, she’s going to answer it, even if it’s not in her lesson plan. We kind of go off on tangents sometimes, and that’s the time I learn the most, it seems, because it wasn’t in the lesson plan but it’s a very good point that we need to know. Eventually, she’ll bring us all back, and we’ll start again with the main topic. The class is really fun-filled. We do different stuff with every lesson plan. It’s not like, “Read the book, here’s the quiz. Read the book, here’s a quiz.” It’s “Read the book. Now research this and we’re going to do a mock trial.” We just did a mock trial on our constitutional rights. We pretended we were standing in front of the Supreme Court arguing a case. That taught us constitutional law and how that works. With this, we’re actually debating a criminal topic so we have to learn about arrests and stuff like that. It’s [a] very hands-on experience.

Joseph: She’s a good teacher. She knows a lot about law. It’s a pretty fun class. The people that are in it are pretty good. This last three days, we’ve done a lot of group work, which I like a lot, instead of doing individual worksheets. You learn a lot about stuff you hear about on the news, but you learn more in-depth what’s going on.

Rayad: She has a lot of energy in her teaching. She’s moving around. She does keep us interested in things and if she sees that something is boring us, if something’s not working, she’ll get at the problem. She’ll change it to make sure that we’re always interested, so that we’re always learning something. As soon as you lose interest, you stop caring, you stop learning.

Renee: I think her class is really fun. She’s a really good teacher, and she makes it interesting to learn law. There are no enemies in the class, and nobody judges people. We all get along and have fun, and it’s a really interesting class.

Robin: She’s enthusiastic and makes it interesting to learn about our government and society and how they work with each other. She makes it fun. Her questioning gets you to really examine the way you feel about a specific situation and also about different aspects and sides to the story and gets you to relate with them. It helps you realize that things are a certain way.

Hands-on learning

Becky: Being a senior, there are a ton of books I have to read. There are a ton of worksheets I have to fill out and a ton of textbooks I’m reading. I know it for the test and it’s gone. But I know in about two weeks, I’ll be able to tell you about the constitutional law and how I argued in front of the Supreme Court and I had to know it. It provides a personal experience. People remember stuff from personal experiences better. I can look back and say, “Hey, remember when I was learning about racial profiling? Well, I researched this, and that’s what I remember.”

Joseph: I think it’s helpful. It’s not just filling out a worksheet. We could have just typed up an essay or something on how we felt [about racial profiling]. When you do something like this, it gets your brain going, and I think it helps the learning process because you’re doing it in a group, and it’s a lot [more fun] than doing [a] paper. It does seem like it’s a lot easier when you’re doing it with other people.

Robin: It’s really interactive. It’s us discussing with our other classmates our opinions, and that makes it more interesting because you get to see what everyone else thinks and kind of relate your own thoughts with them. It teaches what people of different races might think or feel in a specific situation instead of just imagining how you would feel yourself. It puts a realistic spin on things. Just reading a book doesn’t always get your attention so much. It seems kind of out there, not something that you really would experience but when you talk about these issues and you see that it’s affecting people in their real lives, it kind of gets you to realize that it’s happening in your own life, too. Then it’s pretty interesting.

Textbooks

Becky: Ms. Ambrose assigns it. We go home and read a chapter and take notes so that we have background information to do the activity in class. We really don’t read out of the textbook in class. We have a choice. We can either do the worksheet she gives us, or we can take our own notes. It’s whichever study way is better. The worksheets are not busywork. [They are] like a study guide. It’s just a general thing for people who need a little bit more help knowing what to study. In class, she’ll review it for a little bit. She’ll say, “What did you read last night? This is what I got out of it. Here’s what you should have learned. You should know about this.” Then she’ll say, “Now we’re going to apply what we learned in the textbook and what we’ve read in the textbook.” We don’t read everything. She doesn’t say just go home and read chapters one through five. It’s like, “Well, for tomorrow, you’re going to need to know what’s in Chapter 12, so you’re going to want to read that.” We only read what we’re going to be using. It’s going to be the stuff that we’re going to need to know and the things that Ms. Ambrose feels are most important for life and the activity.

Rayad: [We use textbooks] to level the table. We read through the material, but not always. It’s not always a full reading. We take a look at overheads. We’ll watch a video that’s pertinent to the topic. So some of it’s reading, and then some of it’s outside. That’s how Ms. Ambrose tries to keep things interesting. But we get everything that’s in there. It’s a pretty good text. It’s pretty user-friendly, I would say.

Renee: You get your choice of taking notes or doing a worksheet. After we do that, we talk about it in class. We ask questions if we don’t understand what the book is saying or why they have it written that way. We ask her about it, and make it so that we understand what they’re saying because there are a lot of really big words that make it really difficult to understand a lot of the stuff. We ask her to break it down, and we talk about it. So it’s kind of a guideline, but we expand out from it. We tell a lot of stories from the kids’ personal experiences. [A student] told a story of being pulled over. Then Ms. Ambrose will tell stories about articles she’s read about–people in the local area–to give us a real-life example of how it happens and what happens. Having readings other than just the textbook is really helpful because it makes you understand. Most people who write the books go by the rules. When you have examples and articles, it helps you realize, from the citizen’s point of view, what goes on with the rules that are written in the book.

Citizenship

Becky: [The lesson] showed me that I really need to stay informed of what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the news, [and] how people are reacting to it because I didn’t know anything about racial profiling, and I didn’t have any opinions. If I were to vote, I would see if my representative agreed with it or didn’t and that would influence my decision. As a citizen, I’ll know what’s expected of me if I’m ever arrested and I’ll know what the cops are allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do and I’ll know what other people are going through. Even if I don’t become a lawyer, I’ll know how lawyers argue or I’ll know my rights and other people’s rights.

Joseph: I think [the lesson] gives you a broader perspective on being a citizen because it helps you realize that as a citizen you should be more informed about [how] the country is run. This class helps you see the way that this country is–like what the law of the land is and how the country is supposed to be run.

Rayad: I am a first-generation American. My dad tells us every day we’re lucky to be growing up here in America. We have a lot of different things that he didn’t have when he was growing up and to always appreciate it, to strive for it but also never forget where you came from. It’s an important thing just to appreciate life. In my family, my little brother and I [get] more [of a] sense of citizenship from our parents because they didn’t have the things that we have. They didn’t have the opportunities that we have.

I think a duty of every citizen is to stay informed. By staying informed, you stay involved in your community. You understand what’s going on around you, and one of the most important things is to be aware.

I’ve heard the [citizenship] test is tough. My dad sponsored my aunts who used to live in South America. They all had to apply for citizenship. My grandmother did, my grandfather, my cousins who were born in South America. They said it was a tough test. They studied for it, and I think that people who end up taking the citizenship test know more about America than the citizens do themselves because they really have to be prepared for that test.

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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

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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

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