Skip to main content Skip to main content

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Patriotism and Foreign Policy Patriotism and Foreign Policy — Teacher Perspectives

Alice Chandler teaches U.S. government to seniors at Duke Ellington High School of The Arts in Washington, D.C. She was interviewed in relationship to her lesson on patriotism and foreign policy in which the students worked in committees to design a Museum of Patriotism and Foreign Policy.

Constructivist strategies

Alice Chandler: Constructivist teaching is bringing reality through the lesson to your students. This is a way of getting young people to understand how to really function. We’re talking about really knowing what you read in the newspaper and what other people are thinking. I don’t want them going away with something that remains in the textbook, something that remains on the page. I want it to be something they can really utilize in life. I have to give them some type of foundation with some real skills that they can use once they leave Ellington.

I also find that it provides a bonding, not only [for me] with my students, but also [among] students, which I think is far more important than anything else. These students are forming networks. It’s very important that students understand that as artists they often can share information that will help them become successes in their lives. So I’m bringing reality [to the lesson]. Students want to come to class, they want to participate, and they want to show what they are intelligent about. I get immediate feedback.

Using Socratic questions

Alice Chandler: I want something real for my students. That’s why I use questioning. They get to find out, “How are my classmates thinking? What is it they’re developing?” These are young adults. What they’re thinking now will pretty much be the foundation for how they will think for the rest of their lives, and how they will affect the thinking of their children, their family members, and even their neighbors. My use of Socratic questions [helps me] see how my students can tie in information they have learned in other classes (world geography, world history, D.C. history) or their everyday experiences. We have students that have traveled to other countries. We have a student who is from Turkey. We can use those things to let students play off one another and not so much me–to hear and develop their own thoughts and concepts. Usually by the l2th grade, they pretty much have a good idea of [how] they feel about things.

Successful questioning means giving them a question, and letting them really answer it. Don’t lead them. Let them formulate what they really had in mind, because [if you lead them] that doesn’t help them. If you are going to make it realistic, they have to go with something that they really believe passionately. It’s really helpful in everyday life, especially when you go for an interview.

Socratic dialogue broadens the individual and allows teachers to know when there’s a change. The type of student they had back in 1980 is a totally different student than what they have in the 21st century. It helps motivate students if you understand where they’re coming from and you use what they bring to the table.

It was not hard for me to get into the questioning mode as a teacher so much as it was to let my students really go with their answers and not try to lead them.

Multiple intelligence theory

Alice Chandler: I went to an Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development conference and Howard Gardner spoke there about his theories on multiple intelligences. It was something he said that just made it real for me. Gardner made it very plain that students have different methods of learning. We have some special education students. Because we use the multiple intelligence mode, they are able to use their strengths. I want [all students] to go with their strengths, understand their citizenship, and understand that there is a role for artists in the government community.

The lesson

Alice Chandler: My learning objective is to include the arts with United States government regarding foreign policy and patriotism because when my students leave Ellington, they may have opportunities to work for the State Department since they are here in Washington, D.C. I want them to understand the appropriate themes and people and places that they could possibly use if they were called upon to do so. This is really a long-term goal. Students can use, as a part of their resume, that they have prepared an interactive museum. The other students, if they are called upon [to perform at the White House or the Capitol] will understand what it is that they should be addressing regarding foreign policy, especially from their particular art. So I really have a goal that is beyond the classroom. They will have this for a lifetime. I hope that they really understand foreign policy and that they’ll be able to bring it into a reality for themselves as they begin to brainstorm and put together some ideas.

This was the first time I’ve tried this lesson on any class. I was very pleased that they were able to take the information we had discussed earlier [and combine it] with what I added to date. The pivotal piece was that the class brought added meaning [by] playing off one another as peers. However, I did not realize that it was going to go in so many different directions. I think they really covered more than I expected. I’m very pleased that they remembered a lot of their American history, which would have been last year’s work. I didn’t have to add as much foundation as I had expected to. They really did answer the questions in a comprehensive form. I realized in giving them the worksheet, that they were aware of many of those terms. When I handed out the rubric, there didn’t seem to be much of a concern about what was expected of them. The students were able to grasp the concept of patriotism, and in many instances, roll it over into foreign policy and see that link in their art, for example, when Laura mentioned Katherine Dunham and how she had gone to the Caribbean and been a voodoo priestess. Then Myra asked me about Bob Hope and [I was able to direct her to] a Library of Congress exhibit that was online.

I would say that the most challenging part for our students would be the foreign policy piece. I think they have a grasp of what patriotism is or is not. When it comes to foreign policy, I think they [typically] come in contact with it when they see cars block the intersections or flags up around the White House or [when they are] going through Embassy Row.

Group work

Alice Chandler: I use groups because you can get a wider dimension of how [students] are thinking. Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, yes. I was thinking that, but how about this?” That’s the way it is in the real world as far as team teaching and teamwork. It used to be that a lot was individualized but now people are looking for team people–people who can really bring something to the table–so in doing this, they are also developing the skill of being able to work with others. Also, networking is very important for them to learn now. Even though they’re in high school, it’s just another world in which they can make connections with other students. In fact, the dancers said that they may have to go to the vocal music people in order to get some information so they’ll be able to carry out their piece.

It’s not an optional thing for them to do, therefore, they learn how to function based on that. They have to understand that in the real world, that’s probably the way it’s going to be for many of them. They may have to work with people that are not in their art. The groups I used for this particular lesson were based strictly on their art or on similar arts, like museum studies with visual arts or instrumental musicals with vocal. You learn to find out what’s comfortable for the students and you always leave them the option to do something on an individual level if they wish.

The specific manner in which I organize my class is to have a group leader. There’s always a natural leader in the group, especially when you’re talking about the arts. They already know who is stronger with their talent, or stronger with being vocal, or with getting people organized. In fact, in the class we’re in now, we had the president of the student government as well as the vice president of the student government. There are leaders everywhere. The other thing is to have a recorder just like in any organization. You need someone who will document what takes place so there’re no questions about what’s expected. That helps with the homework piece and also ties into networking and the peer support that you need to have when you’re doing cooperative learning.

[Putting together] the museum individuals and visual arts students as the head committee was a result of my having worked in the corporate world. I realized that they have a head group and then they have people that are designated to bring in pieces to the whole. I believe [at] the Smithsonian and other groups you have the regents at the top and then you have various committees under them. The students need to have that kind of exposure. They may be asked to work on a committee one day. It became a very good organizing principle.

Why civics is important

Alice Chandler: When a student comes to me and says, “I couldn’t care less about foreign policy,” usually there’s another student in the class who will say, “Wait a minute. That is important to you, especially if you’re living here in Washington, D.C.” So, I let the students answer that person. Then, of course, I’ll add information or I will send them to a newspaper article or the library or media center to do research. I really have an advantage.

No matter where they go, they still have to be a citizen. Because we have exchange students here, they need to also understand what the world thinks of our country as well as how we project ourselves when we go out of the country. The overall thing is that they need to become professionals. They have to know that if you go into a country and you hear that the Constitution is about to be suspended, then you better get to the American Embassy because that means they’re about to shut down and you need to get out of the country. Also, I try to encourage them to read the papers so that they’ll know the hot spots in the world because sometimes our students are invited to go other places around the globe. I want them to understand that the arts are very important to civics and that civics can be very important to the artist. They are often called all over the world to sing and they are recognized as cultural ambassadors. Often students share information. When the dance students went to Bermuda, one student researched how the State Department gives money to performing groups that go abroad. So often they’ll find out governments are very important, not just individual foundations and other groups.

If you are participating in [citizenship activities] at school and you understand the value and you hear what your peers as well as older people are thinking, then you say, well, maybe I need to get out there and really think about it. Once they understand there is a tie, they will not be as reluctant once they are on their own to be involved with what’s going on, maybe in writing a letter to a Congressman or maybe boycotting something. If you feel comfortable in the classroom doing something, when you step out into the world, you will be more inclined to participate. The more you get them involved, the more inclined they are to want to stay involved and carry on.


Alice Chandler: All jurisdictions have standards now, so when I’m preparing my class at the beginning of the year, I know there are certain things I wish to do. What I may do is to change how I teach a particular thing for that standard. At this time, I’m using the foreign policy museum. Another time I may decide for the students to write plays or something else that relates to foreign policy on an individual level rather than as a group. I still teach the standards, but I make sure that when I apply things, I apply them so that it will give students the feeling of participating and be meaningful to them.

We must be able to address the standard we’re working with and how it relates to what the District of Columbia has given to us. Despite the fact that we do not have full voting representation in Congress, citizenship is an important standard in the District of Columbia. Every student in the class will tell you that when you turn 18, you receive a voter registration card. Another important standard here is knowing the Constitution and the founding documents. Also, understanding what your rights are and where they are and what are the rights of those people deciding the rights for what you’re doing. Those are very important, I believe, to every young person.

The big emphasis is on passing standardized exams. I think that’s sad because when you go out in the real world, they re-teach you anyway. We understand it’s good for students to be able to read at a certain level but my own belief is that we have to begin to work with student strengths. Not every child’s strength is in doing advanced calculus. This is not to say that they do not need math, because they do need math to function and reading is fundamental. But I dare say that all of us do not need to be able to read Gray’s Anatomy, which is made for doctors. I don’t think we should be required to have students be able to read things that are above and beyond the basics.

Her background

Alice Chandler: I came through during the time of Martin Luther King, the riots, Robert Kennedy’s assassination. It made me more socially aware as well as a much better person. I also have to say that Constance Mitchell, who is still teaching at one of the area high schools, was a great government teacher of mine. She was the one who used the Socratic method of teaching. I do not remember using the textbook that much. She really involved us. Subconsciously, it was that teacher in my senior year of high school that prepared me. I really didn’t know what a gift she was giving me at that time.

My development as a teacher started when I needed a job while I was in graduate school in American history at Howard University. I was in American history, so I did not have a foundation in education at all. In fact, I had to do two years of probationary work. I happened to have had two courses in geography and they needed a certified teacher in geography. It was really a fluke, but my mother always said that she thought that I would make a good teacher. After awhile I said, “This isn’t too bad.”

I’ve now developed into more of a teacher than an academician. In recent years, I’ve gone to the University of the District of Columbia and received a master’s degree in special education, and that really opened me up to understanding students as individuals, as well as students that have special gifts and special skills. I realized I could apply that to my students. It’s also meant taking risks, looking for the good in each student, and really being patient with myself, because I didn’t see myself as a natural teacher, other people did. In fact, I left it for three years when my mother was ill. I did corporate work during those years.

Also, I’ve been a professional writer. I have been a vocalist—not a professional vocalist, but I have been in choirs. I did take dance from age two to 12 in a church basement, but at least I had the exposure. I love the arts. And I said, “What can I do that’s a little different?” One of my friends said, “There’s an opening at Ellington.” Ironically, I was hired because I had computer skills. They wanted me to work with museum studies but I went in as a regular social studies teacher.

Evolution of her teaching style

Alice Chandler: When I started as a teacher, I was just like anyone else 25 years ago. They expected you to use the book and the rubrics that they gave you. There were certain things that you had to cover. There was no leeway. They gave you end-of-the-year exams, so you had to teach the students based on what they were going to be tested on. Over the years I began to see that there was a little bit more that I needed to be doing. In fact, it was the students that said, “Ms. Chandler, we’re tired of just reading and responding. Can’t we do something else?” So I really began to understand that there are students that have other strengths and there are other ways of learning and you can still cover all of the material. At Ellington, I can bring in the arts. I can bring in any of the other academic subjects.

I evolved as a constructivist teacher about five years ago when I worked with a program called “The Integrated Curriculum Development Program” here at Ellington that was funded by the Smithsonian Institution. We wrote curricula and one of the courses that we had to take was based on constructivism and how you would bring it in and the realistic ideas behind it. We read books by people who believed in that particular method of teaching. Subsequently, I knew that it worked with me well, because I liked writing about it. Therefore it made it easier for me to develop lesson plans, and it allowed me to use both sides of the brain. So I found that not only was it good for me and it allowed me to be more of a teacher, but also it brought reality to my students. It gave them something they could grasp, that they could use their strengths with, and go out in the real world and use.

It was hard for me to change from being a traditional teacher to one that is more of a risk-taker because administrators in many schools do not necessarily view [constructivist methodologies] as teaching. AP courses teach from the textbook so that the students are able to pass the exam at the end of the year. Standardized exams are based on reading and that’s the only means of learning that some administrators and supervisors see. What made me change were my students. I found that they were more motivated. They were more willing to work, and really, they did learn. They were learning from what was practical as opposed to what the editor or the publisher feels is practical. I feel confident here at Ellington because they encourage using an integrative method of teaching. However, if I had to go to another school, it might not be something that would be appreciated. Another school may want the textbook approach. I am at the point where I seldom use the textbook except as a reference.

If the administration expects you to be a textbook person, often that’s what you have to do to get a pretty good rating. As you get older and feel more comfortable and can step outside the box, it becomes easier, and they don’t challenge you. Here they let me pretty much flow as long as they know that I am teaching. I don’t use excuses. I do hall duty. And I think all of those things also help them allow me to be more creative in the classroom.

Advice to other teachers

Alice Chandler: You have to be able to let go as a teacher. I think that’s the key thing when you’re talking about cooperative groups. You can’t go in and micromanage. You have to let them work. When they get noisy, that’s one thing, but you have to believe that they can do that.

Look at what’s in the textbook and see if there’s one piece there that they can actually apply constructivist-type teaching to. Start out small and then go bigger. Also, use the newspaper. Find something and relate it to the students. Find out how they feel about it.

Use something current–a current event that perhaps the student has heard on the television or radio—that they can readily grasp. And then let it flow out from there with, “Do you realize this connects to this?” Then say, “Does anybody else have that?” Then you sort of let flow questions and answers that would be applicable to them but that maybe I would never think of. There are some answers I’ve heard doing this lesson that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought about, because I’m from a different generation. So I have a lot to learn from it. Probably the biggest thing is opening up and letting students also be a part of this preparation and sharing and learning and teaching process.

Be patient, because it’s not easy, and start small. Don’t try to jump into it and possibly have an entire lesson on it. Maybe pick some corner of the lesson or take a group of students that are ready for questions and answers. Let them develop questions themselves to throw out, and then you will begin to understand where the students are. Then you can expand it to the larger class. Let the students also be the teachers. I found that when they do mini-lessons, often they will throw out questions–and that helps the teacher. The teacher has to understand this is a two-way process. Once you understand that, it becomes easier for you.

Get the kids ready for this by coaxing them. There have been times when I’ve turned on the radio to a station that has controversial speakers and let them listen for a minute. Or turn on a controversial video or some audio device. Let them listen and then let them go with questions and answers. You may say, “Okay, now develop questions” and then let them throw out the questions to one another. You can help to guide it by throwing in something if they are going off course, which happens in any class. You sort of have to bring them back.

Classroom management is a must. But start classroom management by doing hall duty. It’s the mundane things that often really give you a grasp. I see a student and I speak to them, whether I have them [in my class] or not. So when they come to me, they will be ready. They note that I’m not going to just chew them out, even though sometimes I may chew them out in hall for a hat or something. But for the most part, they understand that I’m going to go in their classroom and I’m going to teach and that goes out to the rest of the teaching community.

It’s the administration at any location that makes the difference. If you have difficulty at a location–they don’t want you to take risks or be creative–perhaps you should get others of like mind to come together and talk with the administration, because that also makes a difference.

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