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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Electoral Politics Electoral Politics — Student Perspectives

The students whose interview comments are excerpted below were enrolled in Jose Velazquez’s Law in Action course at University High School in Newark, New Jersey, when this program was videotaped. Here they discuss their experiences participating in the Student Voices Project, in which they identified and researched issues of importance to youth, studied the positions of candidates for mayor, and created a Youth Issues Agenda for presentation to the mayoral candidates.

Being a citizen

Kerron: [This class] has helped me to become a voting citizen. Many might say one vote can’t make a difference. Can you just imagine if everybody thought the same way, then nobody’s opinions would be viewed.

Maysa: It’s affecting me studying this whole mayoral election because you hear a lot. You will be on a bus and you will hear people talking about Old Sharp James and Cory Booker, going back and forth. The election is getting so heated; it’s never been like this before. It makes you want to know. I recall being on a bus and two guys were talking about it and I wanted to join the conversation so badly. As a teenager, it’s like we are not really informed; we have to go get informed because we don’t vote or anything like that so they really assume that it’s none of our concern. We have to deal with what is coming in the future. In about four years, when the next mayoral candidacy comes up, I’ll be an adult and I want to know what’s going on. It’s really an issue with me. If you don’t know what’s going on around you then you pretty much don’t know anything at all about your life or your culture or your ethics.

This experience in class today–it was tremendous. First of all, other people in this world will see what we’ve done and we want to make an impression that is different from the stereotype [of] Newark students. No doubt people assume things about Newark based upon what they hear in the media. So we want to show that it’s not just about drugs and crime and abuse and anything else that people will stereotype us about. We are not just some minorities that are interested in making money, because money does not make everything.

Learning civics

Tremayne: In my opinion, knowledge is power. Once you have this knowledge, you can pass it on. It’s like a disease. So I have adults who don’t know the things that I know about the campaign. If I can pass it on to them they can pass it on to their kids or their parents and hopefully everybody will know. That way they can make a knowledgeable decision about whom they want to vote for.

Maysa: As a citizen, I think one of the most important responsibilities is reaching out to who is in charge. If they don’t know what you want for the city or what you need for your city, then they don’t know what to do for your city. If you feel that drugs and violence are major issues around your community, they need to know. So I think it is your responsibility to reach out to them and tell them what is going on.

Ebony: Civics education is important because a lot of people don’t know what is going on in the world around them. The civics education we receive gives us a chance to realize who is leading us, why, and who can change things. You get a chance to learn that your opinion and your views do count in society.

Merissa: Before the class, I didn’t know a lot about racial discrimination or gender discrimination or even housing in Newark. This class has helped me. It’s opened my mind. It’s expanded my mind. I think that it’s excellent.

Ebony: My mom, she doesn’t talk about politics, even though, if you bring it up, she’ll show you she knows something about it. My dad, on the other hand, he does a lot of talking about it and I can actually understand now. He used to say stuff like big words. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but now, since I am learning stuff, it is easier for me. When [candidates’ commercials] come on TV, I can understand and relate and see how campaigning actually works. It is interesting and it does give you some knowledge.

Samuel: I believe studying civics will make me more aware as a citizen because I’ll know how the system works. I will have a good idea of how to exact change and better a situation if there is a problem. So in that sense, I say it made me a better citizen and it gave me a better way of thinking of things around me so when I see something, I will be able to understand. I will be able to draw information.

The candidates

Tremayne: During this process, I’ve learned a lot about both candidates. Actually, I live on the same street as Sharp James so I know him personally. But as far as his campaign policy, I didn’t know that much. And now we’re reading different articles on what he’s doing and how he raises money, and some of the things I learned were surprising to me. But I knew nothing about [Cory Booker]. Now that I’ve learned about him, I kind of like some of the things I learned about his style. He’s obviously the younger candidate. He brings ideas in a newer style that maybe Newark hasn’t seen for a long time. Also, no candidate is perfect. The fact that Mayor Sharp James has been mayor for so many years–I think it’s like 16 years now–there are always some flaws. So a new candidate is always going to be appealing because he has these ideas that will [solve] all those problems. I think I will vote for Sharp James because I like the progress that the city has been going through over the years and I feel that if he remains in office, he can continue the same progress.

Quadir: I got more involved with the candidates to see [if] the issues they talk about are the same issues that I’m concerned with.

Maysa: My opinion has changed a lot since we started. When we first started studying, I was just basing my opinion on what I’d heard from other people. It was all for Mayor Sharp James because he’s got experience [and] he’s been in office forever, so why not let him be the mayor again. Sharp James does have experience and Newark has made progress over the last 16 years that he’s been mayor. But Cory Booker has a lot of pointers, like his views on changing Newark and focusing not just on the African American part of the community. We have Caucasians, we have Hispanics, we have Portuguese, and black people. So we have to focus on everything. I agree with some of the things he’s going after, like changing the communities and not in the ways that Sharp James has.

Merissa: I really don’t know that much about [Sharp James] but I know that I often see him [at school events] and he gives support–so that’s one thing that I know about him. He is also around Newark. You see him a lot. I really don’t know that much about [Cory Booker], but I know that he’s a Councilman. And sometimes I watch town hall meetings [on local cable], so I had a chance to watch some of them express issues and things about Newark. The only thing I know about [Duane Smith] is that he is 35 and walks around Newark trying to gain support.

Samuel: The lesser-known candidate, Duane Smith, may not win but through his involvement he’ll bring issues to the floor. My views really haven’t changed because I looked at both sides. But I won’t be able to draw an opinion till we go to the forum with the two candidates. So far you just see them talking about their education and commercials. But you don’t see any plans or what they are actually going to do. So I’m just waiting. I’m going to ask them a couple of questions and I’m taking my time to gather information before I draw an opinion. You may like a candidate but you have to look at all sides of the picture. You can’t jump into something because you may forget something very important that’s being left out. Your candidate might be focusing on one thing that you like but he may bring up something that’s very vital to you that you might realize at the time. If the issue is brought up and presented properly, even though he doesn’t win, it will be very helpful because the current man [may address] that issue because it seemed the community has a strong following for that issue.


Tremayne: I am 18 years old. The fact that I’m now a registered voter means that this class impacts me more than some of the other students who can’t vote, because now the class will directly influence my opinion on who I vote for.

Maysa: This process has made me more interested in being able to vote because the people decide on who becomes the mayor. I feel that everyone should vote regardless of how you feel about the election or how you feel about the candidates. If you feel that a candidate is the best one for the job, you should vote for him. If they miss your vote, who knows? That one vote might change who becomes the mayor.

Ebony: I’m turning 18 on February 5, and I am going to be voting because I realize now that my vote can make a difference. I have ideas [about] whom I’m going to vote for and I’m making my decision based on how the past has been (I learned a lot about that) and what I want the future to be like. I’m basing my vote on who can change our school system and our environment–who will make life better in general and overall.

The issues

Tremayne: The subject that we’re doing is education. Today we went over dropout rates, graduation rates, and percentages of people that go to college. We dealt with how the students felt and how parents felt. We did surveys and we did a lot of background research to find out where [Newark] needs to be to compete on a national level. We found out that Newark is seriously behind. So what we are trying to do is see what the new mayor can do that will have us on an even playing field.

Quadir: I went to the Internet and searched for the average graduation rate of the country and searched for what the graduation rate of Newark was compared to the dropout rate and the SAT scores. It surprised me that Newark was only 40 percent and the average graduation rate for the country was 70 percent and that Newark was 30 percent lower than what the country was.

Ebony: I did recreation. We started out with a survey. It was fun to do because we just threw out a whole bunch of ideas–like swimming pools in schools–because we always used to say it would be fun if we had a swimming pool in the building. There are a lot of recreation centers that we are involved in. So it was not that hard for us to do. We surveyed 51 people. Because our school is majority girls, we did 34 girls and 17 guys. But we still got a consensus of what everybody wanted. We had questions like about youth-sponsored events for senior citizens and a lot of kids were for it, but then there were a few who didn’t want anything to do with old people. Every single person that we surveyed voted that they would like more community festivals because that’s the only time you will see everyone you know in one place and it’s all positive, no fights. We make a mess of the streets but it’s nice afterwards to see everybody cleaning it up. It gives everybody a chance to get together again for positive reason, to be outside for a good reason, not just standing on a corner. We were deciding on what there is already–the good things–and then what we wish there was–things that our younger sisters and brothers and even our kids can have and do that we didn’t have. One thing we wish is that the parks looked better. We go to play games and stuff and the parks are kind of like…ugh. So we decided we want them to be improved. It was important for us to do a survey because we wanted to get everyone’s opinion on how they felt and what they wanted. I didn’t want to be selfish and say this is what we want. We wanted to make sure that we had a consensus so we could speak for a larger group of people than just ourselves.

Kerron: The focus of my group was on housing and neighborhood issues. We branched out to different issues than housing and neighborhoods. Like we weren’t necessarily concerned with housing, we were concerned with how safe the streets were, how the sidewalks were paved, and if the houses were stable and in good condition to live in. We looked up how many housing projects they’ve torn down and replaced with the new economic-sized houses and we also looked around the city and observed what streets were damaged the worst. The thing that most interested me was the streets in the neighborhoods. Before we even began doing research or I ever heard of this project or Student Voices, I always noticed how terrible the streets were and how drug-infested the neighborhoods were. When this project came about, I had my chance to voice my opinion.

Maysa: Our topic was teen employment in the City of Newark. You look at other people and they have this and they have that and I’m sure everyone desires to have something more than what they have. So we felt that employment in Newark is a main focus because regardless of what you say, you do worry about what people feel as far as like clothing and your hair. Girls want to look nice and the guys want to look nice for the girls. It’s a need but it’s also a want. So our focus was on employment and we showed the class our research based on students who go to University High School. We surveyed 95 students on whether or not they worked in Newark and if they made more than $6.50 (which is actually not minimum wage, it’s $5.25) and who was able to work with the Mayor’s Office of Employment Training because that’s the program that they offer in the summer for teens to have a job. We made a circle graph to show that the majority of students that do have jobs in Newark don’t make more than $6.50.

Samuel: Our group was looking at issues in the community from the small stuff like a pothole here and there to the major issues of drugs in the community and preventing drugs from getting into the community. What I’ve learned from it is that there are all these different channels. You may want something to be done but it’s going to take time and it may not be done when you want it to be done.

Jose Valzquez's teaching style

Tremayne: Mr. Velazquez has a very unique teaching style. He’s energetic. He might come into class and start yelling, and you say, “Mr. Velazquez, what is going on?” and he says, “We’re at war. We’re at war. The Nazis have just invaded. We’re at war.” So that’s how he begins the lesson to get you interested in a subject you may not want to learn about. He’s very active, he takes us on trips, and we do mock trials. He puts us in competitions. He involves us in [a lot of different experiences] outside of school that make it worth learning. He tries to split us up in categories based on what our interests are. Like for this project, we dealt with education needs, recreation needs, housing, and roads. He asks you what areas you feel more strongly about. That way you will have motivation and you will want to do the work. If you want to switch later, he’ll switch you. He doesn’t tend to force you to do work because he knows that a student that is forced to do work usually doesn’t do that well.

The Law in Action class is quite demanding because as he always says, “To be a lawyer, you have to read well and write well.” And that’s not just as a group. You have to be an independent reader, so there are times where he will give us a case and we have to go home, study the case, come back and [talk about] the case. Or he might say I want you to read this trial and this trial and bring back some case law that you might be able [to defend] one side or another side with. It’s a mix of individual work, group work, and going outside doing research.

Kerron: Mr. Velazquez is a great teacher. Unlike other teachers I’ve had, he is more involved with the children. He hears and he cares more. He wants to hear what we feel is important; he doesn’t want to just teach a lesson plan. He diversifies his lessons, and makes sure that everybody has their own views and everybody voices their opinion. Mr. Velazquez makes sure that you learn and become involved in whatever subject is being taught. Mr.Velazquez is more of a hands-on teacher. He gets everybody involved. Other teachers may just teach a lesson by the rules so to speak and just make sure their job is done, but I feel when a teacher chooses that route, the child doesn’t really know or learn what they have been taught that day. Mr. Velazquez makes sure that everything he teaches is embedded in one’s head and [that students] are able to understand and comprehend the subject.

Maysa: Mr. Velazquez, he’s into his work. I think that he’s enthused about his job. Like they say, don’t go after a job just because of the pay. I think that’s Mr. Velazquez. He doesn’t care about how much he makes. He’s affecting students’ lives and he’s also pleasing himself. Mr. Velazquez is a very animated person. Teachers need energy and Mr. Velazquez is energy. He doesn’t like when you don’t pay attention to him. Some students just don’t have that interest in what he is talking about. But some way, shape, or fashion, he’ll get your attention. He’ll run in the class or he’ll start shouting or do some kind of banging on your desk to grab your attention. What some students don’t like about Mr. Velazquez is that he does not give up. He will not stop. That’s a good thing personally to me, because that’s how teachers are supposed to be. They are supposed to keep you interested and still get on your nerves. All teachers get on your nerves in a way but I think it’s very positive.

Samuel: I like the way he goes about teaching. He makes us interact more with the work. We don’t just read, we have to know what we read. Anything could be a test. Like the articles we read. We had to read six articles and do an essay and it was all counted as a test. We got a questionnaire and an essay-format question as well. It all comes at you. You can relax, but you can’t relax in the sense that you think you are going to just get by.

Marissa: I’ve gone home and spoken to my parents and uncles about his teaching styles. He makes you want to learn. He loves what he does and you can see that he loves what he does and [it] makes me want to love it even more. One thing that I noticed about him is his energy as a teacher. It pushes me to learn more about history and more about politics. He adds personal experiences. For example, he was like a rebel in school. That’s one thing I remember because I was so intrigued. Wow–you a rebel! He tells us how he was and puts it into a way that we can understand but also in an adult type of manner.

Ebony: Mr. Velazquez has been one of my favorite teachers since he’s been here. The thing about the way he teaches is that he doesn’t talk at you. He actually talks to you. And he doesn’t teach like you are some little kid, he makes you feel like you’re having a conversation, that you are on the same level. We’ve never done anything in here that wasn’t realistic. So you feel you want to learn more because that’s what’s going on in the world right now. He [is] so creative. If we are going to learn, we are going to do it to learn it. Everything is first-hand information. We don’t have to get it out of a book.

Maysa: Some teachers are unsure of what they are trying to tell you or what they are trying to get you to do. He’ll give you a piece of paper that explains bullet for bullet what he wants you to do and how he wants it done. Some teachers will tell you well, you guys are going to have a test and you don’t know what you are going to have a test on or they’ll have you study for one thing in class and the next day you are having a test on something that’s probably in next week’s lesson. But Mr. Velazquez is organized. It’s his organization that grabs everyone.

Constructivist learning

Kerron: Usually you never hear the opinion of the younger generation so I think it gave equal opportunity to both the older generation and the younger generation to put forth some of their opinions.

Tremayne: Because of the information that we are now learning in class, I talk to a lot of older people. It used to be they would talk about the campaign and I would go into my room and listen to music or watch television. But now that I’ve learned about the campaign I can form my own opinion and I can talk to these people and let them know my ideas. Now that I know more information, it makes it more fun to learn. You have a little taste. Now you want to know more. If there is a campaign going on between two candidates, how did they get this far? Why has it gotten to this point or why don’t the two candidates like each other?

Quadir: I like that it is very interactive and really hands on. I’m a visual learner so I need visual aids and I need to actually see what I’m doing, see if it matters.

Samuel: The thing I really liked was a whole-class activity [where] we actually simulated a trial. There were three shipwrecked sailors and the two ate the other one. They had made an agreement that if one of them died they would eat the other but here is the clincher: They killed him first. They didn’t wait the allotted time. I was on the prosecution team: We play witnesses; we don’t just play lawyers. We actually got the AP history class to come in and act as jurors because they would be unbiased [and everyone in this class] had already drawn an opinion about the whole subject. So that was really fun for both classes.

Maysa: I believe that this way of learning is effective because it’s not just a teacher telling you information. It’s about you going after the information yourself and finding out what you assume, which may be correct or incorrect. I think it is effective because it makes you work harder for what you want to know. If you can’t find it, you get frustrated, but it makes you want it more. For example, for the racial discrimination and gender discrimination group, they had no idea where they were going for a while, but they kept going because they didn’t want to be the only group that didn’t have any information. So it’s very effective and it prepares you for when you go to school because you have no one behind you telling you to do this or do that. You have to do it yourself because you get your syllabus in the beginning of the semester and then it’s up to you to get the grades that you want.

Group work

Quadir: I like that because you can get to focus on a specific area and it’s not really boring. You don’t have a lot about everything, you just have what you are supposed to do and then the other members of your team have what they are supposed to do.

Kerron: Working in groups allows people to view each other’s opinions and come to consensus and conclusions that are equal to all members of the group. It is very important to approach different ways of teaching. Not every student learns one way. Like, for instance, I like the straightforward teaching, read-out-of-the-book learning. But another student might like a more hands-on approach, a more getting involved with the assignment, so it gets diversified because not everybody is the same way. When you diversify, you equalize the situation and make sure that everybody gets their entitled learning.

Maysa: Group work is effective and it’s also negative in some ways. You have to rely on other people and relying on other people means that you have to have trust in them. Trust is a very hard thing to gain. Usually you get a lot of information but if you have a falling out, you never know what happens after that.

Samuel: You really have to do the work because there’s a lot of group activity. It gets you to work with others well. I know everybody in the senior class and I’m friendly with them but I don’t really work with them. What I like about working in groups, with people I’m not usually working with, is that it gives you a chance to see other people’s views. Normally, if you are with a group of close friends, you generally have the same views because you are friends. You talk, and you generally draw the same opinion about something. But you get to see another view about something, debate it, go back and forth. And you really get a whole broader view of the field so you really understand better what your topic is and where it stands to others.

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