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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Freedom of Religion Freedom of Religion — Teacher Perspectives

Kristen Borges, who majored in political science and has a Master’s degree in social sciences, has been teaching at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the last six years. In these interview excerpts, which were taped when her class was involved in a simulation of a Supreme Court trial on a First Amendment case, she talks about her constructivist approach to teaching civics.

Students as citizens

Kristen Borges: If we’re expecting our students to become productive members of our society and responsible citizens, it’s very important to allow room for the student voice in the classroom. And it’s very important to allow an opportunity for students to exchange ideas and be able to present their opinions. It’s the job of the instructor to make sure that they have the skills to reach informed opinions and access information that would help their own ideas grow.

Students need an opportunity in a classroom to be able to hear each other’s voices and be able to recognize and respect differences that are among students. That’s the goal for any country and any kind of responsible citizen–that citizens are able to work cooperatively and be able to exchange ideas and learn from each other. I hope that I create that type of environment for my students because if they have experience doing that in my classroom they can move on into society and practice the skills that they’ve learned with me.

Our challenge as teachers is to make what they’re learning in the classroom relevant to the real world. And even though the students that I teach are only 14 years old and are not yet able to participate in our democratic process and don’t have some of the legal rights that come with the age of 18, they begin to learn that they can influence that process.

This lesson really allows them to learn about the individual rights and civil liberties that are in our Bill of Rights and how they not only have the privilege of these rights but also a responsibility to help maintain these rights.

The lesson’s teaching challenges

Kristen Borges: One of the important things that teachers need to be able to do if they’re going to attack a lesson like this is be flexible and willing to give up some control of the direction of the lesson and the classroom. There are a lot of challenges that you’re presented with as far as how the students might react and how much energy they bring to the lesson. If you’re really used to having every single minute of your hour planned out and leading the exact direction that you had prepared for, sometimes that’s not the case when you turn it over to the students. So much of performance-based learning depends upon how the students use it and where they take it. So there will be times when you’ll have a student you know is not going in the direction that you really anticipated. And sometimes it’s difficult for students to know that they are just debating in class and this isn’t a personal issue.

The students have a lot of background information and their challenge is to try to narrow that down so that they can pick things that can be useful for them depending upon their assigned role. Another challenge is having the Supreme Court Justices keep an open mind and try not to be influenced by any beliefs they might have about religion in public settings. We’ve practiced looking at some controversial issues that the Supreme Court has had to decide and tried to look at them from as many perspectives as we could, as well as to really look at what the impact of any decision would be.

Another challenge is helping students effectively articulate their position. Oftentimes students feel that they don’t really know the answer. Sometimes it just takes a little wait time for them to get started. But if that doesn’t happen, a leading question can really get the student engaged with the discussion. I was hoping that by interjecting some comments and raising some points that might come from either side of the issue, that would trigger some ideas and allow them to carry the ball themselves.

Many times students will be able to state their opinion but have more difficulty with the evidence that would make their opinion that much stronger. I have very, very vocal students on both sides who have very strong ideas about this case. And one concern that I have is whether they will spend time listening to the opposing side and really learning how to follow procedure and not interject at inappropriate times. It will be interesting to see if students who went in with one particular thought of how the case should look actually would change their mind about the outcome.

When picking the groups I saw that many of my students who are very outgoing and very verbal decided that they wanted to represent one of the sides. My more reserved students wanted to be the Justices. So I might have a very quiet reserved court up there. I hope that because of the arguments that are presented to them they will be willing to open up a little. One student has volunteered to be the Chief Justice. She knows that it is her role to keep things going and to facilitate her peers. I’m hoping that she’s going to be able to lead the questioning. I saw today that the groups were preparing their seating arrangement and also preparing an order of questions, although they are aware that as the arguments are presented they will probably have many other questions to ask.

What makes cooperative learning successful

Kristen Borges: For students to be successful in this type of experience, early on in the year the teacher has to really be able to establish a sense of community in the classroom and to work towards that sense of community in all of their teaching. The students need to be able to really get to know each other and to be able to learn how to work well with each other no matter what the personality differences might be, how controversial the issue is, and how far apart on the issue they may be. That can start in the first days of the year with some community-building activities. I spent a lot of time with my students in building relationships—building relationships among the students and also myself building a relationship with them. Oftentimes they’ll be put in groups that they might not necessarily be friends with or hang out with outside of the classroom. But inside of the classroom it’s always an accepted practice that they’ll work with whomever they get paired up with.

I was hoping that by putting them into these roles where they are actually performing, there would be more engagement, more motivation, and more connectedness than the students would normally have with the subject. The advantage of this type of performance in the classroom is that the students become more motivated to participate, they buy into their role. But at the same time, it’s rooted in a discipline and it’s rooted in specific civics education about the foundations of our government. So they’re taking information that might be seen as very sterile or foreign to them in a textbook and making it come alive by actually role-playing and performing in a simulation. They seem to have more real connections to the topic. They ask about students’ personal experiences when we’re dealing with these types of issues. They like to start there.

The value of constructivist learning

Kristen Borges: In this kind of project, students have some freedom to explore different ideas. It makes more of a personal connection and becomes more relevant to the student than just reading and answering questions. They have more room to explore ideas. They have more ability to exchange ideas with each other and to connect to real-life experiences.

It also makes teaching and learning more fun. You can see it on the students’ faces when they’re engaged in something like this–that it is something that they are taking ownership of, something that seems valuable to them. They tell you that. They talk about the stuff that they are learning more so then when I am doing strictly bookwork or strictly questions or a traditional test. There is time to have your foundations and to have students be in the books or listening to a lecture to get some basic information. But when they can take that basic information and turn it into this creative process and allow themselves to become performers, I think it’s more valuable for them.

How to get started

Kristen Borges: I always believe that teachers should be able to just jump in and try it. Once you experience it, you can go back and figure out what worked and what didn’t work and what needs to be changed. But if there is some hesitation on turning that power over to the students, perhaps a teacher might want to start on a smaller scale. You have to let go of a lot when you have this kind of process in your classroom. One thing that is a challenge sometimes is losing that control where you as the teacher are responsible for every single minute in the hour.

You can start on a small scale by having weekly discussions or weekly activities where students get used to being responsible for their own learning. I like posing some kind of essential question or controversial question for [students] to attack. I try to do that with all of the units that I teach, so students start pretty early in my class knowing that there is no one direct answer to these types of questions.

The students get more experienced as you start introducing them to working more with cooperative groups or performing some smaller skit or taking a passage out of a book and turning it into some kind of performance before you attack a huge simulation.

How you know when you’ve done a good job

Kristen Borges: One of the things that really lets me know that the lesson had an impact and was an effective lesson is that students are still talking about it and asking questions about the issues that were discussed in class beyond the bell schedule.

It’s really important for me as a teacher to be able to build relationships with my students and be able to personalize the learning that’s going on in the classroom. One way I can see if I’m being effective is if that relationship continues beyond my one hour. If students come back for help in other classes or even beyond the year that I have them and ask for advice as far as what they might want to do after high school or have conversations about some classes that they might be taking, that to me proves that I was effective as a person to help them set and reach some goals as far as life-long learning is concerned.

I learn that students really value my class when they themselves have experienced some kind of situation in their life that comes back to the content they learned in my class. Perhaps a world event [that] they would come and talk about with me and [recall] some of the material that we might have learned in my class and how that is affecting this world event. Or a particular student who might feel that their individual rights are not being heard or are being violated will come back to me and talk about some of the legal issues that might arise around their individual rights.

I also feel successful by the way that the students feel empowered to impact society. When I see students go and take on community projects or even just school-wide projects and present some leadership skills that I didn’t necessarily identify early on in my class but now they may possess, I think that I’ve been effective as a civics teacher.

Her background

Kristen Borges: As an undergraduate, I was a political science major. I got my MAT in social sciences and I was certified at the same time. After my student teaching, I started substitute teaching. I was teaching in a suburban school and in an urban district and I felt that the urban district was more of where I wanted to be. Shortly after that, I became a member of a residency program, which is part of a professional practice school in an urban school. You are assigned a mentor [and] you teach a part-time load but you’re constantly in conversation with your mentor [about] ways to develop your professionalism. You have mentors come in and observe you and you are also in a cohort group where you discuss your practices constantly. So that year is where I really think I grew as a professional because I had the opportunity to constantly reflect on my practice and to do a lot of peer coaching and also have observations completed by experienced teachers. The year after my residency program, I got a full-time job as a civics teacher and a world history teacher. I’ve been at the same school for the past six years.

Using criminal trial cases in my class came out of [my] student teaching experience, watching a cooperating teacher use mock trials very effectively in his classroom. And I went to a workshop on the Bill of Rights last year that explored not only criminal and civil cases but also Supreme Court cases and using the Supreme Court hearing as a strategy to engage the students into these controversial issues. I also have participated in a grant that works on authentic assessment and instruction and ways to really bring value beyond the classroom for the students.

Early on in my teaching career, I got used to talking about my practice and reflecting on my practice with colleagues and veteran teachers. That has helped me find ways to become more creative in the classroom. I’ve taken so many ideas from [my] colleagues of things that have worked for them and been able to use those strategies and make them fit my personality and the environment that I like to set up in my classroom.

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: ISBN: 1-57680-679-0