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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Controversial Public Policy Issues — Workshop Session

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Key Constructivist Methodologies:

  • Role-Playing
  • Structured Academic Controversy

Teacher: JoEllen Ambrose

School: Champlin Park High School, Champlin, MN

Grade Level: 12th Grade

Course: Social Studies 12 Law

Lesson Objectives:

  • To engage students in defining, explaining, and evaluating an issue; presenting well-supported arguments; and reaching a consensus.
  • To build on students’ own opinions and experiences and help them develop a deeper understanding and more complex picture of key public policy issues.
  • To examine the tension that exists in our democracy between the government’s interest in promoting public safety and individual rights.


The Lesson
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 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.

Support Materials
The support materials found below under Sections will lead you through the viewing of the workshop video and the related activities and discussions for “Controversial Public Policy Issues.” These materials can be used by individuals and by facilitators of workshop sessions.

The support materials identify key concepts, provide discussion ideas for each video segment, and recommend follow-up activities for after the workshop session.


Additional Materials
The following materials—Lesson Plan, Teacher and Student Perspectives, Essential Readings and Other Lessons—provide background and context for the lesson seen in the workshop video. They also supply the tools you need to adapt this lesson and its teaching strategies for your classroom.

Lesson Plan

Information on JoEllen Ambrose’s method of teaching the lesson on controversial public policy issues, the national standards this lesson addresses, additional resources, and her teaching materials, including:


  • Structured Academic Controversy: Student Expectations and Evaluation
  • Student Self-Evaluation Form

Lesson Materials

  • What’s Your Opinion?
  • Racial Profiling: A Structured Controversy
  • Consensus Sheet for Group
  • Bibliography of Research Articles


See Lesson Plan

Teacher Perspectives

JoEllen Ambrose’s reflections on the following topics:

  • The importance of the lesson
  • Lesson goals
  • The issues
  • Getting started teaching controversial issues
  • Polling
  • Debate preparation
  • Structured controversy
  • Consensus building
  • Debriefing
  • Her role in discussions
  • Group-learning strategies
  • Lessons learned
  • Timing issues
  • Assessing individuals
  • Assessing groups
  • Advice to other teachers
  • Using constructivist methodologies with other topics
  • Using textbooks
  • Using technology
  • Her background
  • Her legal education
  • Evolution of her teaching style
  • Professional development
  • School administration and community
  • Standards
  • Judging effectiveness
  • Modeling democratic principles


See Teacher Perspectives

Student Perspectives

JoEllen Ambrose’s 12th-grade students’ reflections on the following topics:

  • Discussing controversial topics
  • Racial profiling
  • Lessons learned
  • Working in groups and with partners
  • JoEllen Ambrose’s teaching style
  • Hands-on learning
  • Textbooks
  • Citizenship


See Student Perspectives

Essential Readings

Academic Controversy
By David Johnson and Roger Johnson, University of Minnesota Center for Cooperative Learning

Johnson and Johnson have pioneered research on cooperative learning. In this article they provide further guidance on the debate method used by JoEllen Ambrose in this lesson.


See Essential Readings:

Other Lessons

Creating Strategies and Conditions for Civil Discourse About Controversial Issues
By John Allen Rossi

John Allen Rossi, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, examines several major approaches to teaching about controversial issues, explores their benefits and weaknesses, and looks at how they might be combined with a variety of constructivist methodologies. At the end of the article, Rossi presents an annotated list of instructional materials for teaching controversial issues.

See Other Lessons

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.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-679-0