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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Electoral Politics Electoral Politics — Teacher Perspectives

Jose E. Velazquez, who has been teaching in the Newark, New Jersey, Public Schools since 1987, teaches Law in Action to seniors at University High School. In these interview excerpts, he talks about his use of constructivist methodologies and his class’s involvement in the Newark Student Voices Project, a nationally-funded initiative in selected cities that involves youth in local political issues and campaigns.

Civic involvement

Jose Velazquez: I think our first social studies course in the ninth grade should be some form of introduction to civics, some form of project that forces the students to become active in their community. The issue is not whether they are eligible to vote. The issue is can they be active participants in a society. They can do that in elementary or middle school, and they can definitely do it in the ninth grade. We don’t want to be a humanities school in the abstract. We want to be a humanities school where students go beyond the walls of this institution and become participants in their community. By the time they become seniors, it should already be established that they are going to be agents of change. It shouldn’t be a matter of trying to convince someone who is 18 years old that they need to participate in their community.

We believe that young people need to have their voices heard in this campaign, and the students have been working to be able to articulate what they think are issues for young people that a mayoral candidate would have to address. Young people need to be part of the political process in the city. Young people are the future of the city and yet they are not an important factor in deciding a political campaign [partly because they] are not discussing what they feel are the issues, or they feel that people don’t listen to what the issues are.

Some of [these students] actually will vote in this campaign. It’s important for the students to know that [voting is] a lifelong process. We are hoping that this kind of involvement will spread throughout young people and throughout the city. Hopefully the influence that students have on their families and in the city can come out of this project also.


Jose Velazquez: The teaching methodology that I’m applying here is a constructivist approach based on cooperative learning and reflection and discussion. It’s an authentic assessment approach where the learning is not just something from rote memory or a book but is based on actual participation on the part of the students. We want our students to participate in meaningful ways that are going to ensure lifelong skills. That’s what civics should be all about.

Of course in the process there is direct teaching. We have discussed some of the issues in the campaign by reading articles and having discussions. We’ve had exams on the issues. Students have been assessed in different ways. But cooperative learning allows you to take that direct teaching and see whether students have incorporated [it] into their own body of knowledge.

Some teachers may choose to do this in a traditional way: Here are the candidates. Here are the positions. Go home and read this and study this. You will get an exam on this next week. Here we have students that are actually involved in the learning process, taking responsibility for their own learning. They bring their prior knowledge of what the problems of the community are, then confirm that prior knowledge with research, and then make that research part of their own body of knowledge. So rather than teacher talk, what we have here is student-led discussion, student-facilitated discussion, student-centered discussion. Cooperative learning requires extensive preparation and processing as the lesson is happening. It’s a different role as a teacher but it is quite a comprehensive role. It’s not like you give up control–quite the opposite. As you become good at cooperative learning, you understand that there are social skills as well as academic skills involved.

About a week ago, I gave a traditional exam. Half of it was short-answer questions and half of it was an essay question. In that essay question, I asked them to comment on the issues and the campaign as they see it so far from the readings that they have done. Their responses demonstrated understanding of the issues as well as commentary on both the positive and negative aspects of the campaign. So you had real understanding going on there. It also demonstrates their own particular concerns, it brings out the passion in what students feel. They become part of the process, rather than just listening to a traditional lecture.

Connecting constructivism and citizenship

Jose Velazquez: I think the kind of methodology that I was trying to use in this lesson has a direct impact on citizenship and the process of participation. If we are going to talk about citizenship and democratic participation, we have to tailor our lessons to model that kind of behavior. I think these students over the next few weeks will play an active role in the campaign on many different levels. Some of them may be directly involved in the campaign. Some of them are probably going to go home and discuss with their families what we’ve been discussing in class. So they may not have the ability to vote, but they are going to influence the process.

Teaching challenges

Jose Velazquez: The biggest challenge is to play the role of facilitator. When students prepare their presentations, it’s hard for teachers to take a step back and let students work out the problems. While I will be giving suggestions, I don’t want to give the answers or my particular opinion or my bent on an issue. I think it’s important to feel comfortable with that. Not everything is going to be perfect. The answers are not always going to be solid answers. There are going to be weaknesses. There are going to be strengths in each group. The important thing is for students to take responsibility for their own learning rather than feeding everything to them.

The realities of an urban high school require an incredible amount of flexibility and improvisation to deal with things that you may not have been aware of but that impact on your class. For example, we are having exams this week for the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth graders and delayed opening. Schedule changes have meant I was not able to see the students the last two days.

Another issue is the fact that they are seniors. I’ve taught seniors for many years and I know around this time of year they are thinking about the prom, they are thinking about their senior class trip, everything else except school. You have to motivate them.

I think another challenging issue is to be able to control the passion that this election has engendered among our students. We’ve had some great debates but it sometimes gets heated. I’m okay with that because I think that’s the reality of participation in civics and elections. So when you see students involved at that level, it’s not a negative thing, it’s a positive thing. But at certain times it’s a challenge.

Building consensus and closure

Jose Velazquez: How do you build consensus? Do they understand what consensus is? If we open up a discussion on the points, will we rehash the points all over again? What I’m so happy about is that the suggestion of how to actually finally bring closure to one of the points that was a point of contention–the 24-hour recreation–came from the students themselves. And the fact that they were able to come to a consensus–that they understood what consensus meant–and do it quickly showed that the closure worked, and that it accomplished its goal.

Our next step is to take this into the real world and have a dialogue, hopefully with the candidates. The students have an agenda. They have a point of view. They have real solid questions that they want to ask. That’s also something that came from the floor. That was really beyond my expectations. I thought I was going to have to really bring finality to the lesson and it turned out to be the opposite. It was totally from the students. That meant the students were really directing the lesson and that was the goal that I think any teacher who tries to do this kind of approach wants to happen.

Student challenges

Jose Velazquez: The most challenging thing for our students is the research. Our students, because they represent young people and are articulate, can [identify] what they think are the issues and concerns. I think they have done a pretty good job with that. Being able to research and confirm their assumptions and predictions in ways that are a little bit more scientific has been a challenge partly because of the time limitations.

Informal assessment

Jose Velazquez: I know things are on track when I see the students’ comfort levels [and they begin] to talk about what the issues are and feel comfortable in expressing them without thinking “Do I have it right? Is this what Mr. Velazquez wants to hear?” I try to tell them, “It’s not what I want to hear, it’s what they want to say.” When I see them participating and being open and honest about their strengths and weaknesses, I think that’s where we want [the lesson] to go.

[At the end of the lesson], as they were congratulating each other for the work they did, I was listening closely to a lot of the words that were being thrown out by the students. That really brought a lot of joy to me because I could see that they were not only happy with the end product but they were happy with the process in which they accomplished the end product.

Getting started

Jose Velazquez: You have to begin with being able to take a risk of giving up total control and playing a different role in the learning process. Step back from the lectern and say I want to be a student myself. I don’t want to be the person giving out all the information. I want to receive information. Students can take responsibility for their own learning. You don’t always have to be in control. You’re not the vessel of all information. Students have information of their own that they bring into the learning process and you have to let it flow and not be afraid to facilitate the process, as opposed to being the only person giving the process. I think if a teacher can start with that step, then everything else is planning.

Starting tomorrow, [decide] the goal of the lesson, [select] five aspects of the lesson, begin breaking the students into groups, and assign some tasks per group. That immediately takes the role away from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all of a sudden now, a teacher says, “Okay, you are in groups, go to work.” It requires planning and organization. It requires playing the role of conductor in an orchestra. You still have to know where you are going. You have to have very specific tasks for these groups to accomplish.

Forming groups

Jose Velazquez: You have to be aware of different abilities. You have to be aware of personality issues. You have to know your students. You have to be aware of issues of gender. Do you want an all-female group? Do you want an all-male group? How do you organize leadership in the group? Do students assume leadership or do you assign someone to be responsible for a particular group? How do you assign responsibilities in a group?

Students' presentations

Jose Velazquez: I was impressed by the graphic organizers that the students did. I think they showed a lot of creativity, a lot of reflection about how to represent the issues in visual ways. Some students did traditional outlines. Some students did more cartoon representation. Some students did highlighting and actually put what they thought would be important statistics that people needed to know to understand the issues.

I was especially impressed with the group on racial and gender discrimination because they were really starting from scratch. They had problems with not only doing the research, but also [with defining] what racial and gender discrimination is in the context of Newark, New Jersey. I think they handled that very well. The process of articulating what the problems were, doing a survey quickly, and then putting together a visual organizer, I thought went very well.

The oral presentations were very good. As I was [using] the rubric, most of [what] I was checking off was good to exceptional. They spoke extemporaneously so they knew the issues. They weren’t reading from papers or documents. They were very adept at explaining why they thought those issues were important. Some of them articulated the problems really well. At some points I had to reinforce them and push them to convert problems to possible solutions.

Lessons learned

Jose Velazquez: I think what I would do differently next time is broaden discussion on the powers of the mayor as opposed to the city council, so that we could tie in exactly what the mayor can do about certain issues. For example, a group was talking about the minimum wage. The minimum wage is a federal issue, but it’s also a state and local issue. [Another] issue came up around the Board of Education and the powers of the mayor over education in the city of Newark. If I had to redo the lesson I would give them background information on the whole debate over who should control the Board of Education. The reason I brought it up in this discussion is not that I expected them to know about that debate, but to get their views as to whether they felt the mayor should have input and decision-making power over issues of education. I think we made the connection but if we had to do it over again, I would probably bring in a more formal discussion of the powers of the mayor in relationship to the Board of Education as an example of the limits of the power of the mayor and also highlight the powers of the mayor in a mayor-council relationship. I think students understand that there is a city council and there is a mayor but the limits of the mayor’s power would be something I would introduce in a much more formal way.

Advice to other teachers

Jose Velazquez: I would recommend that a teacher begin with actually having students articulate what they feel the issues are. I’d advise them first of all to have students follow the news closely. I’d advise them to investigate the various programs of the various candidates so that students are familiar with the candidates, both personal, biographical information as well as what the candidates stand for. Politics sometimes is dirty business and the media may focus on things that are not issues but more about personalities and scandals. You want to be able to keep the kids focused on issues.

Newark mayoral campaign

Jose Velazquez: We have a highly contested mayoral election in the City of Newark. There are two major candidates: Mayor James, who is the incumbent, [and] Cory Booker, the major opposition candidate who has garnered a lot of support. He is presently the Central Ward Councilman. He has been Councilman for the last four years. We have another candidate, an independent democratic candidate, Duane Smith.

Interestingly, the elections in Newark are nonpartisan but all three candidates are Democrats. The real race is between Mayor James and Cory Booker. That’s what the press, the media, and the people in the community are really focused on. Mayor James has been in office for 16 years.

Mayor James grew up through the political process of the City of Newark. He was a former councilman and then became mayoral candidate and the second African-American mayor in the city of Newark. Cory Booker, who is a recent arrival in the city of Newark and politics, became the central ward councilman in the last election and is seen for the first time as being able to mount a formidable campaign against Mayor James.

We are talking about what may be the most expensive mayoral campaign in the history of the city. We have millions of dollars from in the city as well as interests outside the city. There is concern in this campaign as to whether we have a new generation of leadership coming up in the city.

The campaign is not only based on real issues but has become personal in many ways with a lot of media focus on the city of Newark and its renaissance. This is not the city of 1967 Newark riots anymore. There is now an interest in the city. There are issues as to whether the focus of the development of the city has been on downtown as opposed to the neighborhoods, and people disagree on those issues. For the first time, we have a very passionate race.

Editor’s Note: Mayor James was re-elected.

Remaining neutral

Jose Velazquez: I took the position that I was undecided and neutral. I think I did that consciously so that I would not influence their opinions. By the way, I think I may be exaggerating my own influence among the students because I think a couple of students would say, “You know it wouldn’t matter what your opinion was; it wouldn’t change mine.” In that sense I was very proud of the students because if they strongly feel that way, I think I’ve taught them to have their own opinions and be critical and not just buy anything I say. I made a conscious decision to stay neutral and undecided so I could really be fair to all sides because we are dealing with students who have very passionate opinions about these candidates and we are also dealing with a number of students who are really undecided and observing the campaign to make up their minds. I didn’t want to influence that in any way.

His background

Jose Velazquez: I’ve been teaching 15 years in the Newark public schools. I was raised in Harlem, New York. I actually never thought I would leave New York City. I had two career options. One was to be a lawyer and the other was to be a teacher. I’m so glad I chose teaching. I have a lot of friends who are lawyers and I think I’m a lot happier then they are.

I went to school in Harlem. I dropped out of my first year of college back in 1970—a period of great turmoil in this country. I went back 10 years later and finished my degree in American History at Columbia University in New York.

I think what inspired me to become a teacher was my experience with my sixth-grade teacher. [At a] ghetto school in Harlem, a teacher actually changed my life. Most of the friends whom I grew up with are dead. It was drugs or Viet Nam or something else. I think that teacher actually took a group of us and exposed us to the world beyond 125th Street in Harlem. And she did it on her own time, on the weekends. Sometimes, I think I subconsciously went back to that experience when I had to make a career choice for myself. I wanted to talk about how I could impact young people, how I could change the world, how I could make a difference. I think the choice became really clear.

I started teaching in 1987. I went through what was called the alternate route program in the State of New Jersey. I was kind of a unique alternate route candidate because I had a minor in education at Columbia University, but I didn’t take the student teaching component. The alternate route in the State of New Jersey required taking 200 hours of classes, coursework, and teaching–on-the-job experience. The first year you are in a classroom at Central High School here in Newark. It had the reputation of [being] one of the worst schools in the state of New Jersey. I think that reputation was definitely exaggerated. For me, coming to Central High School having been raised in Harlem, I’m home. I understand students. I know where they are coming from.

I had a very good support team at Central High School. My first year I really began to tailor my teaching strategies using cooperative learning, not necessarily in a formal way because of training but because of a practical necessity. I started as a bilingual teacher. I have certification to teach social studies in Spanish. I was in a bilingual setting with five or six different language groups. The only way to do that was [to adopt] a sheltered-English approach using cooperative learning. This meant putting them into groups according to language, hoping that there was one student in each group who knew a little bit more English than the rest of the students who could become a group leader and help in the translation of the lesson. It was almost by practical need that I became comfortable with cooperative learning.

Some important evolutions of my teaching have been working on getting my Master’s Degree. I’ve taken a lot of coursework in the Princeton Center for Leadership Training. I did three years there and became what was called Master Teacher. That part of my training was important [because] they focused a lot on the development of groups and group dynamics.

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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: 1-57680-883-1