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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Controversial Public Policy Issues Controversial Public Policy Issues — Teacher Perspectives

JoEllen Ambrose, who has been teaching social studies for 23 years, teaches law to seniors at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minnesota. In these interview excerpts, she talks about her approach to discussing controversial issues in the classroom. The particular issue her class debated was racial profiling. The discussion was governed by a formal process called “academic structured controversy” that was developed by Roger T. Johnson and David W. Johnson of the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota.

The importance of the lesson

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

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

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

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

Lesson goals

JoEllen Ambrose: Hopefully, students will have a better appreciation for the Constitution and the tension that exists between mutual goals. I think it’s real easy for students to sit back and say, “Well, there’s crime in that neighborhood. That’s what they need to do.” Or they’ll say, “You know, guilty people don’t really need to have rights because they’re guilty. And so therefore . . . .” But the process is everything. How can we teach citizens to appreciate a process that says we have to still protect individual rights? I hope that they see some of that complexity and some of those dynamics.

The issues

JoEllen Ambrose: I was really amazed at the beginning that they were comfortable that we could give the police [a free hand] without identifying how we would restrict them. At the end, as they looked at various situations–and especially when it was personal–they said, “Wait a minute. We’ve got to stop the police because this affects me, and it doesn’t feel good when I’m the one who’s getting pulled over.” Some of the stories that came out I found really moving. Also, it kind of went to the big picture, which is, “What are we willing to give up for security? What does it mean to be a patriot in our society? If we don’t stand up for the principles of the Constitution and if we don’t look to those rights, we really don’t have the society we want.”

I think kids are looking very closely at the Bill of Rights. They’re seeing situations where it is meaningful to look at the Fourth Amendment. When we say, “What is unreasonable about a search?” they’re beginning to think through, “Is race a basis for a reasonable search or not?” We’re talking about equal protection of the laws [and] due process. What are fair procedures that police need to use when they see people suspected of crimes? The government has a constitutional duty to promote the general welfare and establish justice. Those issues hit the very essence of who are we as a country. What does it mean to promote the welfare for all of us yet at the same time balance very important individual rights?

Getting started teaching controversial issues

JoEllen Ambrose: A first step might be just relaxing and allowing [yourself] to face controversial issues as a comfortable piece to work with in the classroom. To not be so afraid of it as something that’s going to be difficult. To let go of community pressures or other issues that might be there. To say, I can talk about a controversial topic because I have a framework from which to talk about it and I don’t have to make a statement that’s so controversial that I’ll get in trouble.

Whatever topic they choose to start with–there isn’t a day that you don’t look at the news and a hot topic comes up–fall back on the framework that looks at this issue in a way that’s going to give meaning to the kids. Ask a question [like], “If you were the store owner in a community that has a lot of crime, how would you look at racial profiling?” A lot of it is just thinking about the kind of questions that you want to ask. If [teachers] could take that first step and say, “We are going to discuss controversial topics with some sense of a framework,” they can let it happen and bring it back to where they’re comfortable with it.


JoEllen Ambrose: The introductory activity was a poll. I asked students to express an opinion on a topic in the criminal justice area and they had to physically move to stand by that position. We could look around the room and see who agreed, who disagreed, [and] who was undecided and then we turned to each group and asked them to explain their position. If the opportunity arose, I might ask a question to clarify or to find out what they really meant.

A polling activity gets them to think about the topics that we will be covering [and] forces their participation. When you introduce a unit, you try to spark their interest. You want that attention-grabbing activity that says, “Oh, I’m hooked. I’m with you all the way.” One way of doing that is to force them to think about things that they’re going to face in the unit and take a stand on them. In taking a stand, they’re not looking at knowledge necessarily. They had a little knowledge from the textbook but they were basically coming at it from, “Hey, this is my opinion.” They’re drawing from their own experience. I think it gives them a hook. It motivates them. They’ll be adding knowledge as the unit goes on. You can bring it back at the end by saying, “Have you changed your mind on any of these positions?”

Students take a risk to express their own opinion. [Some just] their friends. It was something that I observed but I wasn’t going say, “Don’t you have a mind of your own?” because that’s obviously not a comfortable position for anyone to be in. We’re not going to hold them to [a] point of view. They can be fluid in their thinking. I don’t know what teaching method other than polling allows them to defend their position yet also change their mind.

Sometimes I think [the polling activity] could be a little bit faster paced but I thought they were all focusing on what was being said and certainly willing to respond, and it was thought-provoking.

Debate preparation

JoEllen Ambrose: In that particular activity, they had a chance to work with partners, which I think is a good method to get kids comfortable, to get them to help each other, and to divide up the work. Articles had already been prepared, and they were asked to engage in a civil conversation to define this topic: What do we mean when we have racial profiling? They had to look for evidence or statistics to back it up. They look at the articles and try to evaluate when racial profiling should be used. So they’re making moral judgments. What circumstances make it good? When is it bad? Without knowing what position they’re going to argue, they try to draw from the articles information to support the definition, the explanation, and the evaluation.

It wasn’t surprising to hear them say, “What is it I’m supposed to do exactly?” That’s always the clarification that they want. It is a challenge to get them to jump from the personal experience to the bigger picture. They would like to fall back on my opinions based on the anecdotes that we talked about in class rather than really looking at what the picture is. They’ll say, “Tell me which side I’m arguing. I would rather just know because when I’m in the debate and I’m competitive, I want to win. I want to know my best arguments.” You say, “You need to know the whole picture, and then you craft your argument when you try to support it.”

Structured controversy

JoEllen Ambrose: The structured debate is a framework that you can use like a recipe. It is very directed. It tells you how to put the people in the groups and how to switch and how to do the consensus. You can fill in with any topic you want. It can be used in a variety of settings and a variety of situations.

I planned the groups. I kept them with the partners that they chose, but I purposely picked different pairings of people to add a different mix to it. They then were assigned position A, or position B, and they had some preparation time to pull arguments that support A or B.

The method [is] very structured. They only get three minutes to argue their side, uninterrupted. Then the opposing position gets three minutes. Then [I] ask clarifying questions to get them to find out what they missed or what they didn’t understand or what they could use when they switch positions.
The second half [is] the same activity, but they have to switch sides by physically changing chairs. [Again] they get a little bit of time to pull together arguments. Then they have another three minutes in which they argue the new position. B goes first. But they’re the former position A people. So all of a sudden, they’re doing a 180-degree turn. Then the opposing side comes back, and they go back into open discussion.

I like the idea of them changing perspectives by actually physically moving from the A position to the B position. It gets them to change their mindset a little bit. A fact might mean something else to them when they have to argue it in the opposite position. I [also] see a group-building process. What is the common ground here? Where do we come together? The small group dynamic went from a competitive debate mode to a cooperative learning mode.

You’ve got students participating. You get a lot of verbal response. I saw students in the debate digging in deeper. I saw them owning the questions. As that debate went on, especially in the clarifying part, they were defining their own learning. You could hear one student say, “Well, what do we mean by this? Where are we going with this?” They’re kind of taking themselves on a journey to a deeper understanding of a very controversial topic.

The topic of racial profiling was a very interesting one to pick because the kids could pick a position that [either] distanced them from their own experience or embraced their own experience. It was a real risk for some of those kids to share perspectives that were very personal [in] nature. As a white suburban teacher in a white suburban community, knowing that there are persons of color and persons who have a worldview that’s different than my own, I wanted this activity to draw that out. But students have to choose their comfort level. One student approached me during a break and shared something very personal. The student was very comfortable reflecting on his own experiences with racial profiling. But a lot of students weren’t comfortable, and some of the white students were afraid to develop that issue in front of their peers. I noticed one group had a conversation that brought up some very sensitive issues about how we judge people on the basis of color, even here in our school. I want students to have those kinds of discussions because I think it improves our school environment and I think it teaches them what it means to live in a diverse country.

Consensus building

JoEllen Ambrose: The final activity was to get them to reach some consensus. Where do they see the middle ground between those two extreme positions? There wasn’t much that I did, besides keep the time watch. [It was] a chance to listen. Anytime I come in, I think they see it as a judgment (“She’s asking me a question because I didn’t argue it right ”), but especially in the consensus part, when they begin to write down what they think about racial profiling, each group needed questions to elaborate a little bit more and be a little more careful. One group ended up going back to the very first question–What is suspicion? What is the basis for this whole thing anyway? They were still dealing with almost definition issues.

Democracy is not clean. If we wanted one person to make a decision for us, we wouldn’t be a democracy. We all need to be part of the difficult discussions that go into finding consensus. We need to understand that is the process of democracy. When students can accept that consensus isn’t necessarily selling out–that it’s the incremental process by which we bring about change–then I think that’s a huge democratic value they get from [this] teaching tool. You only have to look at [how] the civil rights movement [used] law to bring about change in our society and how that process came about through incremental steps and consensus building.

Building consensus is very important for students because so often they only see the extreme positions. We need to see where we can build a consensus rather than alienate people by going to the extremes. There has to be some sort of consensus building to find the majority vote to pass the law. At the same time, we have to protect that minority. [We] can’t deny the rights that are given to people within the Constitution.


JoEllen Ambrose: Today we asked the groups to come together and share their consensus positions. They read what their group decided. Then they put it on a continuum as to how they felt it fit between the two extreme positions. They defended that a little bit.

[The results are] a little bit mixed. I think I successfully achieved the objective. The students really did reach that middle ground. They found circumstances where racial profiling may be acceptable or they qualified it. They made some statements that I would like to challenge. Some of them were still [so] broad-stroked that you wonder if they were thinking through that tension between those situations. I was pleased that they were able to reflect on some democratic values more than they did before. I heard the students say, “I appreciate privacy. I think privacy is an important issue.” They were kind of getting at when someone is innocent and when someone is guilty. They were looking at equality and fairness in our society and what is fair for different groups.

Then we looked at the continuum and had a general class discussion. I asked, “What did you learn about the topic? What did you learn about the process? Did you find yourselves changing your mind as a result of the process?” That brought out some good comments. I also asked, “What did you learn as a result of the activity itself, the polling, the structured controversy, and coming to a conclusion?” I liked when one student said, “I changed my mind. When I read the facts, I was much more aware that it is a problem. Initially, I saw it from the perspective of our class because that’s what we brought into it. Now I realize it’s more of a problem, and it’s something we need to think about.” They are certainly seeing the issue in a more complex way.

Her role in discussion

JoEllen Ambrose: I try very hard to model good questioning. I try to get them on a higher level of thinking. [To check] comprehension, I’ll ask, “What did you learn about that? Restate for me what you’re saying. Give me the basics.” To get to analysis [I’ll ask], “What arguments support this position?” I’ll often take the opposite position to get them to go further or I’ll ask a question that gets them to elaborate. [If they] just give the easy answer, I’ll say, “Have you thought about this? Or what about that? Can you elaborate?” For example, today they found it real easy to say partial racial profiling is okay. That didn’t define it very well so I said, “Let’s clarify, what do you mean by this definition?” Then you try to get synthesis. “Let’s take what you learned here and apply it to this new situation.” That’s a lot of what law is. “Now we have a new case. How does the law fit? Where is it similar? Where is it different?”

Especially in controversial topics, I really purposely think about where a particular comment is going. If there’s a lot of controversy because we’re not defining something, we’re not all on the same page. For example, “What exactly is terrorism?” If we can’t define it, I’ll say, “Can we accept this as a definition for terrorism and move on?” Let’s look at the next issue–a factual question. Ask them questions like, “What kind of source are you using? What’s the basis for that fact?” If that fact is true, to get them moving to the next level, [ask], “What kind of policy do you want to see as a result of that fact?” It’s a real simple technique, but it eliminates a lot of tension by [making] the assumption that it’s true or it isn’t true and asking, “What should we do about it?” If we disagree about policy, then what democratic values are we really arguing about? We’re arguing about equality. We’re arguing about how people should be treated fairly. We’re arguing about order in our society. All of a sudden, we’re back to values, which takes them to where I want to leave them.

Questioning is very difficult. I used to have every question written out because it was very unnerving. When they give me that quizzical look, I’ll ask the kids to paraphrase. “What do you think I just said, and did it make any sense to you?” I’ll get back, “No, it doesn’t make any sense at all because I don’t understand the word ‘disparity’.” That’s a great check for me because we’ve got to go back to the definition.

I try real hard to focus on what they’re saying instead of the emotion. I try to validate the student’s idea. Often, just paraphrasing what they say takes it to that different level. It puts it back to them to take it further, to respond. As a good social studies instructor, I was taught not to take a position but I’ve found that sometimes that’s impossible. It’s always better to be up front with your students. In this case, I think they could tell I was trying to be objective because we were looking at “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Undecided.” In situations where I may have to own my opinion, I’ll tell the kids this is my position and a personal point of view. They need to hear from the teacher that they have an opinion as well.

I find oftentimes I do too good a job on the opposing viewpoint. Because they are students and they are at a certain age, you either have weight or you don’t. They may think, “Well, because she’s knowledgeable about this, her decision must be right.” I don’t want my authority as a teacher to be what persuades them. [On the other hand,] not all students are willing to accept the authority of the teacher. They might look to exactly the opposite because they want to counter that position. I really want everyone to feel [his or her] opinion has value and that [he or she can] bring out what might be an unpopular opinion.

I do a lot [of] affirming with nonverbal [behavior]. I say, “That’s a great point.” I think it validates their opinion and gives them permission to continue speaking and to express something that they might not be comfortable with. Sometimes we have discussions [that] become very personal. That would be a situation where I would kind of time out. These kids had ground rules, [e.g.], “We’re not going to judge people personally. We’re not going to interrupt.” I didn’t have to jump in and enforce any rules. In another class with this same lesson, I would very much have had to even physically stand by one person and say, “This is what he’s saying and we’re going to allow him a chance to say that, and it’s not going to be personal.”

My job as a referee is part of teaching controversial issues. I enjoyed today because I was really able to think about what they were saying and bring in a different situation–What about this? What about that? I could stay with the flow of the discussion. In other classes, the management piece might break the flow. I might have to say, “Wait a minute. This person is able to say this, and we’re not going to make it a personal attack. Let’s move on.” Sometimes that prevents the discussion from going smoothly. Sometimes it’s just the reminder people need, and we continue the discussion.

Really listening to the students is a challenge. I want to be sure we can focus and respectfully hear the different positions that come up. I get lost in our own little conversations. I really want to be able to respond without losing the whole but drawing out the one–getting kids to feel comfortable changing their viewpoints in a way that the class isn’t judging them.

If I can spark enthusiasm in the initial discussion that begins to help kids formulate their own questions about the topic, so when they look at the research they begin to say, “What about this? What about that?” and let their own curiosity take them to a deeper level, [I’ll feel successful]. [Another indicator is if they say], “Wait a minute. What about Minnesota? Is this an issue that concerns our state? Should it concern our state? What facts can we use to support it?” [rather than] “What do I need to do, and how should I explain it?”

Group-learning strategies

JoEllen Ambrose: When I choose groups of students, I try to take a varied approach. When I don’t know the students very well, I’m comfortable numbering them off and putting them in groups of kids that they don’t know. As I get to know students, and depending on the nature of the topic, I like to have some control over those group decisions because I think I’ll get a better product. So I plan different ways of picking groups, depending on the activity.

I find that, especially with seniors, I get more out of them when they’re allowed to choose their groups because they’ve known each other for a long time. They have a high comfort level, and they’re not interested in me pushing them in a direction they don’t want to go in unless I have a real good reason why they need to work with other people. In a younger class, I will take a lot of care in making sure that even if they have different opinions or they don’t know each other, they can build that group process and class environment that I want them to have.

In organizing [this] lesson, I ask students to choose [partners] that they’re comfortable working with because that brings out, I think, the best in them. It can also create a situation where they are off-task, so it’s a two-edged sword. I think the structure really gives them a focus so they don’t get too far off the path.

[In] the group work, there’s a lot of accountability. When they see me moving around and listening, I think it brings them quickly back to the topic at hand. I have played around with different formal ways of evaluating group participation, and for the purpose of this activity, I didn’t want to add that. I want them to dive into the topic more than doing different identifiable roles. For example, some small-group activities will allow students to choose a role, [e.g.,] recorder, convener, question person. Because the nature of the activity was debate, it was pretty clear what [the] product would be, so I just let them have that informal relationship.

In choosing what groups of four that they would work with, basically, I did a real teacher-like procedural thing. I put their names on three-by-five cards, and then I looked at [the] partners. Knowing a little bit about the students and the perspective they bring into the classroom, I thought it would be fun to match them up with a pair that maybe was very opposing. I didn’t put a lot of thinking into some of them, and I put a lot of thinking into others.

High school [students] come to the classroom with a lot of experience in group work through their English [and] speech communication class so it’s a component of what I do, but it’s kind of easy. You can say, “Remember small-group discussions you’ve had where you take on a role? In this activity, I want the timekeeper, I want the discussion person,” and they have a sense of what that’s about.

Lessons learned

JoEllen Ambrose: Maybe I would ask the [polling] questions a little bit differently to get the kids [to] spread [out] a little bit on their opinions.

I did a lot of [research] for them. I found articles, and maybe they could have used their own research skills. Certainly we could use some critical thinking, for example, “Is this a good source? Why or why not?”

As I look back on the dynamics of those groups that I was watching more closely, I wish I could have told them in advance that they really need to come up with some sort of a conclusion that would cap their argument. One group had a zinger at the end (that the Constitution must be preserved or protected), but other groups didn’t take advantage of that.

I would like to [do] the debriefing [immediately] after the structured controversy. As they built consensus, there was a momentum and an energy that they could have brought into the debriefing. A day later, it’s a little flatter and harder to pull out.

Timing issues

JoEllen Ambrose: I like 85-minute periods because you can teach with an interactive method and at the same time pull out of them what you wanted them to accomplish and wrap it up.

Sometimes, when I’ve done [the structured controversy], and I could tell that they were done talking, I’ve shortened [debate periods]. Instead of three minutes, it’s two minutes. I have found that if you leave them in the middle of a sentence, they still have a momentum that takes them through the whole activity. If they end up with a whole extra minute and they’re looking at each other, they’re going off-task, and you’re not going to bring them back.

I was surprised that the [consensus] activity was only [supposed] to take five minutes. I believe [it was] at least 20 minutes before they had a consensus, and I think some of them are still thinking about it.

Assessing individuals

JoEllen Ambrose: I would like students to reflect on their own learning throughout the process–the planning, the articles that they looked at, the debate, the speaking. Were they supporting their arguments with good evidence? Were they getting deeper into the issue? They’re going to look at their listening skills. Were they asking clarifying questions? Did they help the group come to consensus? Then, finally, how do they feel about the issue? Has it become a more complex issue for them, and do they think the consensus is a good position?

They’re going to rank themselves in a format of 4, 3, 2, 1 and then justify it, [i.e.,] what evidence do you have to support that particular ranking? I’m also going to ask very general questions, [e.g.,] “What did you learn about the topic? What did you learn about the process?” I always look forward to reading those pieces that they write privately because that’s a time when they really have a conversation with me. Sometimes, opinions that are hard to share in front of the whole class are shared. It lets me know, “Did I get through? Did I accomplish my objectives? Have I touched them in a way that I hope will be lasting?”

I’m going to ask them to talk about the topic of racial profiling on the unit test. I would expect that question to have some arguments on both sides of the issue and some support for those arguments. I would also ask them to say how this issue reflects the tension between order and rights, and where [they] think it should fall and in what circumstance. It will be an essay [on which] I would like to see good writing and support and a conclusion.

Assessing groups

JoEllen Ambrose: I ask them to evaluate their partner’s strengths and weaknesses to get at the productivity in their group. I definitely have a sense walking around the room [of] what’s been worked with or what hasn’t been worked with. I don’t have an objective way of doing that, but I have a sense of what they will bring into that essay question based on that. Also, the product of the debate was the consensus so I’m not going to evaluate some of those behavioral pieces in this particular activity because the goal was consensus.

Advice to other teachers

JoEllen Ambrose: I don’t think it’s a very difficult lesson, so I don’t think you need a lot of advance work. Because it’s so flexible, you have to kind of flow with it. That structure itself should make anybody feel comfortable. You don’t need to do anything other than follow [it], but don’t be afraid to be flexible and let the argument go where it wants to go and let the stories come out that need to come out. I [also] would make sure those ground rules are there.

Set up the room so that you minimize how much everybody is on top of each other. In some groups, I’ve had them all stand up. Well, you can’t get 30 people standing close to each other without bumping, so that becomes a management issue. This minimized the management issue because they were sitting on desks. It didn’t become distracting.

When I first started doing process-oriented things, I had to give myself room to be flexible and permission to not get it right the first time. For example, when you’re doing a mock trial and all of a sudden the judge needs to make a ruling, [you need] to let go–it’s right or it’s wrong. Get the kids to think about why they made the ruling that they did [and] bring the argument out. Another example is when we did a political party convention. That was really terrifying because I don’t know all the Robert’s rules of order. [You need to ask,]“What’s the big picture?” The big picture is that they’re going to use some sort of structure to bring out different resolutions and they’re going to learn how to debate. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to find the answer to the question before we can continue.

Sometimes I think that people hesitate because there’s so much unknown in a process-oriented lesson. You don’t know what the kids are going to say. You don’t know what the end result is going to be. You have to let it happen, trust that it will, and have your back-up plan. I always try to have a few questions or something that would get the process going if it’s really flailing.

Using constructivist methodologies with other topics

JoEllen Ambrose: I find a great challenge in putting together a class. There’s a balance that we need between content (the knowledge that we’d like people to have) and the process piece, the performance piece, the piece that makes teaching fun. I enjoy when they do an active kind of simulation. The first unit we talked about different legal processes. They role-played a mediation. In groups of three, they were a divorcing couple. It was a he/she thing, and they had to work out some resolution to some very difficult issues. In the role of mediator, they had to be neutral and suggest ideas.

In the constitutional law unit, we role-played an appellate argument. We had them arguing in [pairs]. The kids had read the case. The justices were prepared as well and asking questions of the lawyers. In criminal procedure, we do a mock trial, where they actually role-play the opening statements and the witnesses and the whole nine yards. I’ve done the polling exercise with issues in constitutional law. That format worked great with free speech.

Using textbooks

JoEllen Ambrose: I find [it] very difficult to use a textbook as the only basis for your course. I don’t think that’s much fun and it certainly doesn’t teach kids a lot about critical thinking. We need to encourage our students to be evaluative in the materials they are reading and to make judgments about the source of those materials and the bias that might be there–especially with the Internet.

The use of textbooks often is based on the course that you’re teaching and how much you like the textbook–how much information it’s giving kids and how you can work with it. I teach a ninth-grade government class [that] has a book that’s hard for many students, so I find myself supplementing [it for] students who have more difficulty reading.

This course has a great textbook. Street Law really is engaging. The kids find it easy to read. It’s written by a couple of lawyers who had some input from teachers. The topics are very interesting to the students. It breaks them up with hypotheticals, e.g., “Here’s a case. What do you think? What are arguments for and against?” It engages kids in discussion. I’ve taught Street Law with kids that are in an alternative learning center. Those kids have a lot of life experiences so we’ve got a lot of things to add to it. But it is a textbook that really is versatile [for] many different groups and many different situations. It also is a conveyor of information. You want to take that information and work with it in a more meaningful way–to apply it.

Our units are divided by the chapters in the book. They are expected to read the chapters. I ask them to take notes in a meaningful way because I [want them to] have some autonomy in their learning. They will need to pull out what they think is important information. I will [give them an open-note quiz] to make sure that they did a good job on those notes. [On] unit tests, I will not [allow] notes so they have to have good notes to prepare. Sometimes when I feel a time crunch, I use a guided type of exercise, [like] a worksheet that pulls out the most important information.

Using technology

JoEllen Ambrose: Technology has an important role in the classroom but it’s just a process. It’s not the end all. This particular lesson you did not see the kids using a lot of technology for their research. However, I did, and they could have if I had wanted to make that part of the lesson. In using racial profiling as my search, I got into a variety of Web sites and pulled articles based on this topic. Oftentimes, that kind of an Internet search takes kids way beyond where I want them to be, and I don’t know how to pull them back. They need to get the skill for technology, but I pick and choose what lessons I’m going to teach that in, and this wasn’t one.

Another issue is that our building is dealing with a filter we are piloting. A topic like racial profiling is not an easy topic because many sites that have very valid information, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a watch group for hate crimes and things like that, may not get through the filter. We’re trying to work through the quirks about what they can get at and what they can’t get at.

I use the Internet in another project where I ask kids to find out about community agencies. I’m amazed at the quality of Web pages for different sources of information. Our own attorney general’s office has done a really nice job pulling together very basic consumer law information. I give them a list of Web resources that they can use at any time to research current events, like the Supreme Court site or the Cornell site or FindLaw or USA Today. They have three pages of Web sites that I find particularly appropriate. How they use that, I’m not quite sure, but I try to build it into a research project that they do in another piece of the class.

The kinds of video that I use I think through very carefully. Kids today are not real happy with the traditional documentary. People talking to kids on a video about law issues is a snoozer. I’ve got one that goes through each of the amendments and why it’s important and I can’t keep them engaged. The best video is one that can be dynamic in its presentation and stir them up but at the same time, not build stereotypes of the criminal [or] generalizations about law or groups. I don’t want to reinforce that so I’m very careful about entertainment movies.

Her background

JoEllen Ambrose: I became a teacher right out of college. I was trained [in] political science secondary education. Law school was sort of in the career plan but I really enjoyed activities where I had volunteered to work with young people. Because I sensed I’m a people person, it felt more comfortable to look into education. I think working with young people is pretty powerful, and it’s meaningful. I was looking for a career that would offer that kind of meaning, and I think I’ve found it in education. I’ve also found an excitement, a spark that makes you say, “That was really fun. I liked that.” And I like the content area. Talking about principles underlying the Constitution or the role of citizenship is pretty powerful stuff. When I was a student, that’s the stuff [that] really, really brought in my interest and I was really engaged.

Even though you had the history teacher who said, “These battles are really important, and we need to know these dates,” there were those social studies teachers that said, “Now let’s role-play or let’s take a different perspective,” and that was a really fun knowledge base to come into education with. I remember when they first had strategies that were simulation-based. I remember doing one on the Cuban missile crisis. That was one of my favorite school activities. We all [had] different roles in the President’s cabinet, and we were responding to the crisis in Cuba and our relations with the Soviet Union. That experience meant a lot to me [and] kind of led me toward social studies. It wasn’t a rote-learning experience.

Her legal education

JoEllen Ambrose: I had the teacher dilemma that comes shortly into one’s career. The financial incentives are definitely there when one has a graduate degree so I needed to look at what kind of a graduate degree I would want and how I would make that fit into teaching government. I loved what I was doing, and I thought I could pursue social studies education as a master’s [student]. Then I thought, “What if I pursued law school?” There were a few years where I would teach all day and take law school classes at night three, four times a week. Then I’d study all weekend, and then I would get ready to teach. It was four and a half years. I found myself not really ready to jump out of education, [but] I finished. I got that degree.

I had a chance to leave teaching for a couple years on a leave. I did some work developing curriculum in law-related education, which was a perfect cup of tea, a great match. Organizations like Street Law and the Center for Civic Education and the Constitutional Rights Foundation do wonderful curriculum work with law as a component. The circumstances changed [and] I had an opportunity to come back into the classroom [at] a brand-new high school where I could have a strong part in developing the curriculum. Being here and developing the law course and the government course has been a really great blend of the content I learned in law school with the passion that I have for teaching.

Evolution of her teaching style

JoEllen Ambrose: I think any first-year teacher is going to say it’s a lot about management. You’re entering this world where there are a lot more young people than there are you and there are a lot of real pragmatic things that you pick up on. I think my style was a lot more content-oriented when I started because I was coming from college and I had this content, and I wanted to clarify that for the kids. I remember [at] one of my first observations, the principal said, “Who the heck cares how long the Nile River is?” I thought about that and I thought, “There’s a role for that fact but what’s the purpose of the fact?”

I began to enjoy more interactive pieces that I felt more comfortable developing as I’ve become a more experienced teacher. It’s often very threatening because of that control piece to say, “Okay, now we’re going to do a mock trial.” A friend I had student teaching had a fist fight in a mock trial that she did. That’s not fun. You have to have [that] task management piece and that multitasking piece that allows kids to plan different things but pull it together. That’s planning.

As I’ve gotten older, life isn’t always as black and white as it is when you’re younger. Same with my students, especially seniors. The complexity of the issues and some of those different situations that life offers you comes into the classroom as well. I feel much more comfortable with kids finding that middle ground and pursuing it and letting it be a journey and not feeling like I’m not a good teacher because they don’t get the result that I wanted.

I have been teaching for about 23 years. Over that time, I found that my own teaching philosophy and style has evolved. At the beginning, content was important to me. It was comfortable to fall back on because I’m the authority. I have the answer. Our world has changed. There’s information everywhere. How am I going to prepare students for life? That’s not to look to one person as a source of information. It’s going to be skills to help them analyze all of the information they’re surrounded by and to understand the process by which people make decisions. It’s still a balance between content and process because the content, too, becomes more comfortable as you’ve taught something for a long period of time.

Professional development

JoEllen Ambrose: I think it’s very important to grow in my knowledge of different strategies that are used in the classroom and to give myself permission to try new ones. Over 20-plus years of teaching, you could fall back and say, “Well, I have a file that would be easy to pull out.” But it certainly isn’t fun to do the same thing year after year after year. What I like about teaching today is that it’s a new group of students. It’s a new challenge. Oftentimes, you have to change the strategy and you have to adapt to what’s going on.

I look forward to conferences here in Minnesota that bring in experts. We’ve had a lot of staff development by two professors at the University of Minnesota, Johnson and Johnson. Their work with cooperative learning is embedded into a lot of our local staff development. Another piece of my professional development is watching new young people come into the field of education with a wealth of stuff they’ve been learning in college. They bring portfolios that knock my socks off.

I’ve had a fortunate experience to be involved in a national conference at the Supreme Court Institute, where we were able to observe the Supreme Court and meet a justice. What a rare opportunity for a public school teacher to have that in-depth look at the court. I look forward to those kind of national conferences.

There are a lot of professional development opportunities that teachers can take advantage of. The dynamic of teaching, though, is that it’s so intense that you have to really reorganize your priorities to keep yourself saying, “I need to know this strategy.”

School administration and community

JoEllen Ambrose: I have never had issues with the administration on controversial topics because I think I’ve always had the methodology to back them up. I always feel that an administrator will say, “Are you presenting a balanced approach? How are you using your materials? Do you allow different viewpoints to come out?” I’ve never pushed the envelope to do something as controversial as one teacher in our district, who decided he would demonstrate what flag-burning meant and literally burnt the flag in front of the eighth-grade class. That may be an attention-getter–the very essence of that issue was right there–but it was very difficult for the community.

There’s a sense our community is fairly conservative. I have to really allow all students in my classroom to feel comfortable discussing these things from whatever value perspective they bring to it–recognize what the issue is, look at what values are behind the issue, and let them make judgments as to where that balance falls. I think as many values as promote patriotism can come out of a topic as those that would promote diversity or dissent. When we look at democratic issues, we look at both. I guess that’s part of the balance that you walk with different groups in our community that have strong opinions on these issues.


JoEllen Ambrose: In our school district, I look to the national standards for guidance but it’s not a mandated part of the curriculum or what I teach. They coincide nicely with the Minnesota graduation standards and the profile of learning that we have because they were a model for them. Minnesota has tried to use content as an important piece of the standards, but also process. In the profile of learning, we have performance packages, which allow students to demonstrate their learning in higher-level areas. The citizenship standard asks students to simulate a decision-making process. The standard in the law course has them looking at community interaction. We try to assess the performance piece as well as the basic learning that comes with the content piece.

The profile has 10 different learning areas and standards. There is a standard on citizenship, and there’s a standard on community interaction and diverse perspectives and cultural understanding and [so forth]. Our school district has given us little flexibility in the standards that we choose to assess in a particular class. We only do one standard per course. We have a lot of curriculum offerings and it felt like each class needed a standard. Then it became an issue of, if we don’t have a standard, do we get to keep our course?

That became a very difficult issue for elective courses and required courses. We have four years of social studies–government, U.S. history, world history, economics, and law. The law class had to find a standard. They found community interaction, which [asks] students to go out in the community to assess how [an] agency works. When they placed that standard in the law class, it was of great concern to me because I felt we were losing our hold on a 12th-grade course that dealt with citizenship in a very serious way. We argued very strongly for it, and we didn’t get it. We are now an elective.

I’m comfortable with what the district did because we created choices for the 12th-grade law teacher. To teach community interaction, [students] could get involved in an issue–go out in the community, research the issue, find the lawmaking group or the decision-making group, and present the proposal. Another option would be to do 10 hours of community service and journal that experience. The third piece is to interact with an agency about a civil law topic. [For example], I say, “Okay, you’ve just rented a place and your house is falling apart. Who are you going to call?” and get them out there finding organization-based landlord-tenant groups or the attorney general’s office or whatever organization gives them information about law that they can use in their practical life.

Minnesota is on a timeline for developing high-standard content tests. Down the road, social studies is going to have those tests. When they develop a high-level content test, that’s going to weigh on me in terms of preparing students. I know when that comes into my world it’s going to be a different dynamic. It is causing a lot of stress and strain.

Judging effectiveness

JoEllen Ambrose: I have no way of evaluating the kind of citizen that they are going to become. I can only express what I would hope they would become. I would like to see them engage as a citizen in a dynamic way. The ideal would be [running] for office, for example. Or, could a person connect with groups that have influence and make a difference in policy issues they believe in? That would be wonderful and exciting. If some of those words like “liberty” and “rights” and “government” are more than just dry textbook stuff but instead [are] live, dynamic values, and my [students can bring to] controversial issues a sense of our political idealism and the challenge that we, as citizens, have in keeping a democracy alive and well, [I will feel I have been successful].

I am hearing bits and pieces in some of their conversations that I think is different than the first part of the quarter. When they come [from] earlier government classes, they say, “Oh, yes. We’ve had the Bill of Rights. We know we have free speech.” [Then] we look at these issues in a deeper way. I ask students to work with them and to challenge them, to think. As a result, they are bringing up things that we had talked about in the past. They are making connections from the unit on constitutional rights and free speech to this particular topic. I sense that the quality of their small-group discussions is cumulative.

Modeling democratic principles

JoEllen Ambrose: As a teacher, I would hope to model some of the democratic values that I’m teaching. The way the class is organized, or at least in the environment of the classroom, I try to nurture some of those values. For example, I think it’s very important that students have some ownership in the class itself. They don’t need to look to me for all the answers or even all the structure. It’s helpful to open it up and say, “What topics would you like to learn?” because there are a variety of different things we can look at. I’m certainly not telling them they can define the curriculum completely, but I’m allowing them to exercise some choice. The second thing I really appreciate is helping kids feel comfortable expressing viewpoints. They’re not going to hear me say, “Oh, that’s wrong. You can’t say that.” There will be an affirmation of their right to give an opinion. There will also be an important [value] that we respect each other, but at the same time, we have to look at ourselves as individuals and support each other in that way.

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