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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Public Policy and the Federal Budget Public Policy and the Federal Budget — Student Perspectives

Leslie Martin’s Students

At the time these students were interviewed, they were ninth-graders at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, North Carolina, which is a suburb of Winston-Salem. They were near the end of an honors-level two-semester course on U.S. government, civics, and economics, taught by Leslie Martin. The students discuss their experience creating a federal budget. First, they worked in cooperative-learning groups to develop a budget that reflected the priorities of the executive branch and later represented a Member of Congress in a Congressional budget hearing.

Leslie Martin's teaching style

Alex: I’ve never had a teacher like Ms. Martin before. She’s more vocal than most teachers. She’s not afraid to say what she feels. Some teachers are really quiet but Ms. Martin is a good speaker. Her voice carries well. Many of my other teachers don’t have that characteristic.

Andrew: Ms. Martin is very nice. She teaches very fast, which is not that bad because I pick up very fast. She is more in-depth. If I had taken a regular course, we probably wouldn’t have done this because this is really focused. At the beginning of the year when we had our economic session, we used our textbook and a different book. We hated it at the time, but everybody loves that we read it. It helped broaden our views the economic world and learn a lot of theories in the process. We have a book that we keep at home. She will tell us to read or do a worksheet. We bring it in the next day and we talk about it. Most of the time our class is just open discussion. She has you doing a lot of different ways of learning but what she uses right now is groups.

Caitlin: She is well informed. I can’t stand it when teachers are teaching you something and yet they don’t understand it themselves. She is energetic. If you are like a performer on stage [and] you are performing with energy, then your audience is going to feel the energy and return it back. She listens. She doesn’t necessarily criticize. She will ask you to maybe reconsider that answer, but a lot of opinions she respects.

George: She is actually very quick-paced, so a lot of times we will have to keep up with what she is doing and she stimulates learning. I think the nature of her teaching style [is that] she is not necessarily just giving us information like most of our other classes. She bounces around and she is very likeable. Many of the assignments that we get aren’t busy work. She gives us actual things like a paper or a group project, or something where we are doing our own independent research. We are not just saying here is the book and here is what you have to learn. It’s going above and beyond what is required.

She guides the classes. She will come around every now and then. Sometimes she will be checking to see that we are on the right track, that what we are discussing is pertinent. Sometimes, if we have questions, if we need clarification on something, she will comment. Sometimes we won’t know things and we will sort of get off track, and she is basically there to sort of align us. When we were originally doing the economics unit, we did a whole lot of group discussion. We would be discussing economic principles and she would sort of clarify the economics principles to us. If we were having any trouble with it, she would help us through it. She will ask you a question and just stop short of giving you the answer. We always have to figure it out.

Michael: I believe that one very important thing that Ms. Martin does is she gives a new idea a new twist. When she drops by our groups, the chief [thing she does] is make sure that we’re staying on task. But she’s also listening to what we’re saying, thinking about it, giving responses to it and new ideas that we can then discuss–sometimes ideas that we disagree with and we can discuss why we disagree. Sometimes when we’re discussing a topic, we’re very shallow on it. When she asks us questions, we go a little bit more in depth and then she comes back with another question which lets us go more in depth so that we get down to the heart of the issue.

I feel that the way she teaches really helps you prepare for the corporate world where you will be working in small groups to tackle a problem without huge amounts of direction from someone. You really have to figure it out and research. We do a lot of research papers, or she might talk about something and then you do a little bit of research on it and the next day we talk about it more. It helps you, at least for the ones that lead the discussions, to be a leader for others–not blankly following along, accepting the facts, spitting them back out, but really getting initiative to do what you should be doing, instead of just waiting to be told. That’s a big important part of being a productive citizen.

Sarah: Ms. Martin is always incredibly energetic. She’s always prepared for class and she always seems like she’s really happy to be there and really wants us to learn and understand. She doesn’t want to just read something out of a book to us. She wants to make sure that we understand. I think we help to teach her things, too, which is important. You know how she asks questions a bunch in class. What happens is that she might have an answer, but then someone else will say something different that is also relevant to the question but she had never thought of before. So we [get] two different angles but they’re both great answers to the questions. That helps us a lot. Ms. Martin sits down in the classroom a lot–in the chairs, with the students–and it’s like she’s one of us, only she talks more because she’s leading the class. We respect Ms. Martin a lot and I think she respects us a lot, too. It’s all kind of an equal balance in class.

She helped us discuss different things that we weren’t very sure on. We asked her questions about the issues that we were discussing and what she thought. She also helps to move the discussion along and get us back on target sometimes and she helped us to get going with our budget and continue where we’re supposed to be going. She helps think about the issues more. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the questions that she asks are ones that we hadn’t thought to ask ourselves and they help a lot with narrowing down what we think and finding what the real issue is, whereas we were kind of going around the issue. She never comes in and just says the answer. She always asks questions–especially in our seminar class.

Working in groups

Alex: Working in groups is my favorite type of work. I’m not a big fan of working out of textbooks. We’re almost always doing something in a group. Most people perceive that the loud people are going to control [and] the quiet people are going to be more passive. I noticed that in our group. [One student] is a very smart person and very intelligent speaker. At first, he was very dominant. Then we all started to kind of mesh together and we worked very well as a group, which surprised me. When she was calling off the names that first day I was like, “Wow.” Our entire group is very vocal, except for me. Most of the other groups would have a few people that would probably dominate and a few people that wouldn’t. In our group it was four people that dominated and then me that would probably sit back and not say very much. I thought that was kind of a strange group but it worked out really great. I think that everybody contributed and did a great job. I know that I can be as vocal as I want to. Normally I might have something to say but I just don’t. I really wanted to do this and this was really exciting. I kind of stepped up and made my appearance more visible in our group. I think my confidence has really increased from this experience. I probably will be more vocal on upcoming occasions when we do something like this, which is good, because I need to be doing stuff like that.

For people who are quiet, it’s a very uncomfortable class. Most classes you sit and read out of the book and then you get a worksheet and you do busy work the entire class period. This class is completely different. I’ve always enjoyed working in groups whether I’m a quiet person or not. I may not always contribute but I enjoy doing it. There are people that just absolutely hate it. I personally enjoy group work, but I think most of the people that are quieter tend to rather work by themselves. This class offers it for some things, like writing papers. You are obviously going to write them by yourself. But this class is so much about group projects that some of the other students may feel uncomfortable.

Caitlin: I feel that we put in more than I could separately. We have different opinions, so you are getting different ideas. This is something that I would have never thought of, as opposed to what my friend thought of. I feel sometimes that I am too overbearing. I try and take the leadership role too often. Sometimes I kind of dominate over the other people. I am working on that, but I feel that we tried to get everybody’s input.

George: I usually don’t like working in groups, but this time it has been so different. A group is contingent on the work of one person usually. In a group like this, where we have several people who are responsible, it’s not so bad. Because it’s an [honors-level] class where everyone has their own politics and their own opinion, we are getting more of a learning experience. Everyone has something to say.

Sarah: I love working in groups because it provides me with more input. Sometimes I’m not sure of the answer or what I think would be most important and I want someone else’s input. That really helps me. Sometimes I do like to do things on my own though because whatever I think is the right answer I want to stick with and I’m not very good at compromising, but it’s good to have input.


Alex: I played Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts, which really surprised Ms. Martin. She doesn’t think that I’m a very vocal person and she didn’t expect me to pick as vocal a senator as I picked. I really like Ted Kennedy because he’s such a leader. Whether you disagree with him or not, you respect what he does for the state of Massachusetts and the country, and the role that he plays in the Senate.

Andrew: I chose Fred Thompson because he is a Republican from Tennessee, and he focuses very much on defense. I would like to have a stronger military, preferably right now in the wake of September 11th. He also focuses on foreign affairs and energy. I think energy is a big concern right now–especially with the rolling blackouts in California and the oil drilling in Alaska. I think those two issues are big [for] our future.

Caitlin: I represent Frank Murkowski and researched [his background]. I am against the drilling in Alaska. He is for it so I am going to have to overlook my views to represent his. I will just have to look at it in a different way.

Emily: I played Hillary Clinton from New York because she has strong views on environmental conservation and education and also on finding different sources of energy. I think those are important.

George: I was going to do Ted Kennedy but I asked Ms. Martin who would be the closest [to my views] because she knows a lot about my beliefs. She said Barney Frank, so I looked into what he had done, and he was fairly close in line with what I believe in. I think she understands that a lot of the kids, including myself, don’t have a real strong mirror for their beliefs. They sort of know what they feel about things, but they don’t know exactly where they stand on some of the issues. By giving us someone we can research [and] role-play, she is giving us the opportunity to learn specifically about things, and at the same time, have a definite opinion on where we stand on things that we are going to be debating as a Senator.

Michael: My group decided that I was to be the President. Sadly, our group wasn’t able to get a computer so we wrote it all down and I’m just going to type it up. We [developed] an outline and a very rough draft of a speech explaining why we allocated resources to whatever group we did. I’m going to deliver that speech and mainly just promote what we feel is the importance of our budget.

[In the debate] I’ll be playing John Edwards. I was researching at and I thought that the best way to figure out what Senator my views coincided with was to pick a committee that I felt strongly about. I picked the small business committee. His idea on small business was the only one that I agreed with. I almost identically coincided with his beliefs, except for his belief for increased defense. I, unlike most of the America people, feel that we’ve got enough defense and that we should be working more on education and improving our transportation system and rebuilding roads. It gives you a personality to follow and reinforces your own personality. [Ms. Martin’s] kind of making you look at it from multiple angles. She doesn’t reinforce a bias on the issue. If you look at it from all the angles you get to see the varying opinions on the issue and really develop an intelligent decision of your own about how you feel.

Sarah: I’m the President of my group so I’ll be presenting our budget and talking with the rest of the class about why our group feels the money should go to the different cabinet levels. I’m going to be Senator Paul Sarbanes in the debate. There is a lot of information about him since he’s been around for so long and he is very well respected. My parents are Democrats and he’s a Democrat from Maryland. He has been really active in the Senate for about 30 years now and he was a Congressman before that so I figured he had experience and he also supports education a lot. Being a student, I’m really big on education, obviously. He also takes a very large role in the business and economic status of our country and I think that’s also very important.

Lessons learned

Alex: Our group had a really high defense portion of the budget and I disagreed with that. I think what is fascinating about our group is that most of us were not in favor of that high of a defense budget but we understood that when you’re in that kind of high political role, you start to not do as much of what you believe in and do what the people want. You are going to be favorable if you do that so that’s kind of the approach we took. It turned out that most of the people in our classroom didn’t believe in that, but as a general population–the people in the United States–we feel that is what people do believe in.

This class has taught me that I can share my opinion. I used to never write what I believe and sometimes I still don’t, but I try to now because I think that makes the paper more interesting. If you’re trying to write something that you don’t believe in, the reader can tell. When I proofread my own papers when I’m not writing what I really believe, I can tell. But when I’m writing something that I really believe in it’s something really good to read.

I definitely know much more about the government after taking this class. At the beginning of the year it was economics, which is still a major role of the government. I never realized that either. I thought that it was a pretty easy process. You just put something together, present it to Congress, and you’re done. I learned that is a tough job to do. You have to please everyone and still make a budget that will work, which has to be near impossible.

Andrew: At first, I thought it was pretty simple. All of my family budgets are really easy. Then I got here. I thought this was going to be easy, too. Then things pop up and you realize that you can’t do everything you want with a set limit. So we were forced to make some additions and subtractions and cut programs that we didn’t really want to, but we had to make room for other important issues. Ms. Martin said it takes a long time–about nine months–to actually complete the budget process. I could see why. It takes so much time to debate certain areas to make it completely ok with the House of Representatives and the Senate. Compromise is a hard thing. I never actually had to face it until this year. I think that in the end it usually works out. We are [all] trying to create a better way of living. We just take different methods to get there.

It’s been a learning experience. Before ninth grade, I really never had any liberal teachers. I am not saying that Ms’ Martin is liberal. It’s just that I have never been around a lot of liberal students. Last year, my English teacher was very conservative and my whole class was conservative. Now I am in a class where there are more liberal ideas except for people who come from my middle school. I have been able to open my mind and see different viewpoints.

Caitlin: In the beginning of ninth grade, I had very little knowledge of the budget. I really didn’t even think about it. However, seeing that it does affect me is one of those learning processes where you are finally taking the emphasis off yourself and looking around. Two trillion dollars sounds like a lot but when you have to allocate it to different categories, it gets smaller and smaller. You then kind of get a sense of what your Congressmen go through.

Emily: One of the comments of everyone in class was, “she’s trying to make us understand how really hard it is to pass a budget and cooperate with different people.” There are so many different points of view that everybody just has to cooperate. There are the liberals and the conservatives and you have to have somebody to bring you together.

I always thought that [creating a budget] was just a bunch of lawmakers sitting up there spending our tax dollars. I never thought about all the good stuff it does and how when you want funding for something you have to pull it out of something else. People are usually more concerned about the President than they are about anything [else] but it shows me that maybe we should pay more attention to the Senators from our state, because they are the ones that can actually change things. They are the ones that have a voice in Congress. The President is only one person.

George: I had absolutely no interest in economics at all until we did a book called the Worldly Philosophers. We were learning about history and philosophers. I do my own economics reading now, simply from what I learned from her class. My understanding of economics has helped me to understand other things a lot more. I am really interested in politics. I had read several things about free market society [but] I hadn’t really understood what it was about. From learning the economic principles, I had knowledge that I could figure into other things. I am interested in world politics, and I like to read political books. We learned the philosophers. If someone says do you know the principles of Marx, I know not only who Marx is, I know about the books he wrote. I know about his theory. I know about Das Kapital. I know several quotes from Marx. I know his history. The regular curriculum was basically Marx wrote this, this, and that. I think one of the most important things [in a democracy] is that people are being educated. Economics has a very important part in our system. It supposedly gives each person the right to take their own economic future into their hands. When a person votes, he is acting in a civic forum. We live in this society where money is a very important aspect of what we are doing. It’s a capital society. Everyone uses money in a daily life, and no one really understands how money affects business. By buying something, how am I voting with my dollars? So, when we are voting for a candidate, we are not only voting for his government policy, we are voting for his economic policy, also.

Sarah: I guess I never really realized how hard it would be to make a budget. It’s hard for me to just come up with figures out of the blue. I will enjoy seeing what the actual percentages are just to see how far [off] we are with the President and the Senate. I think it helps me to identify with what I thought would happen because if she just sat there and told us what normally happens I think that I would go about it a lot differently. I think that it helps people a lot to learn things on their own and to learn things from their peers. Ms. Martin does amazing things for me. She teaches me all sorts of things but sometimes you can learn things that you wouldn’t normally get from your teacher from your classmates.

I think that it puts us in the hot seat like the Senators are when deciding where the money should go. It’s very important that we represent the people of our states. We talked a lot about pork barrel spending. Each Senator is going to be fighting for whatever [he or she thinks] is most important. In Maryland, agriculture is a really big thing and transportation also. So I, as a Senator, will be representing more money towards transportation and agriculture in our state, whereas someone from North Carolina would be really big on finding ways to pay for their tobacco spending or other issues that are big.

Constructivist learning

Alex: I learned so much about the budget, the long process that it takes, and I wouldn’t have learned any of this if I was either being lectured at by a teacher or reading it out of a book. I think that when you have other students presenting something to you, you learn more than you do from the teachers, which many teachers don’t believe. They believe that teachers know more than the students and sometimes that’s not the case. In a class like this where you have so many smart individuals, I think letting the students get up and teach to the class is important and other teachers should do it also.

Andrew: I prefer learning hands-on. At the beginning of the year, I did not like group work but now I appreciate it a bit more. I get to work with more people. My views have been broadening, and so it’s a bit easier to work with people who share different views or beliefs. Simulations allow you to see what other people go through. You can see what’s going through the minds of Congressmen or Senators. It’s an enjoyable experience. You get a better view of things. The textbook says something about it but doesn’t really describe what those people are doing or how those actions take place. I think that if we were taught hands-on, it would be a lot easier for people to get a feel of how things work.

Caitlin: It’s definitely different. I find it very refreshing because usually you have very set ways in which you read the book [and] you are tested. You are supposed to comprehend it. Discussion makes the class so different. You don’t have proof that this is a hard class except for the projects. The proof is in the discussion of what you are talking about. She will kind of ease us along until we kind of come to a conclusion. When we read a book (Worldly Philosophers by Hobrenner), we would read a chapter and then we would all sit in a circle and we would all have poker chips. Usually we would have about two or three, and whenever we had a question or wanted to ask something, we would throw it in. We would have a discussion.

Emily: It involves you more. It’s more application and less just doing stuff out of the textbook. We have discussions and debates and some of the debates can be pretty interesting. There is role-playing. You work in groups. It’s not quite as routine. Instead of just sitting there and listening to the teacher talk, you’re participating–and everybody does participate. You don’t have to, but we want to because we want to get our ideas out there. I think that it helps to apply it. It’s not just words on paper, it’s actually how it happens.

George: It’s hands-on, as opposed to learning that this is the budget, this is what it does, and this is a typical budget. We are experiencing what its like to build a budget–the obstacles that you run into, the attempt to try to please everybody, the attempt to try to distribute money fairly. We are learning about the cabinet. We are learning about the President’s group, as opposed to just saying, “Here are the notes. Here is the test.” I think that’s a wise way. With hands-on experience, we remember that this is what we talked about, and since we are working with people, we get to remember the experience we had working with certain people.

Michael: I personally feel that learning like this is a lot more interesting than reading a book and filling out worksheets. You retain the information more and you just get a better feel for how it is in real life and what they really go through to do these types of things. I think that the chief thing is keeping interest because so many students (I’ll admit that occasionally I’ve done the same) just zone out. When it’s small-group discussions, everyone is talking. I would say that this type of thing teaches you more about the topic. [You’re] not cramming to memorize words for a vocabulary test or the ideas for a test. [You’re] really learning the material and retaining the material after you’ve gone on to another subject.

Often we have two lectures. One is a simple light preparation, but the real important one is after we have an understanding of the issue and we personally have some experience with it. We come up with questions when we are working in groups and then we can ask those questions at the later discussion or lecture. That’s when we’re really learning and getting the absolutes. Some things you really couldn’t have a small group discussing, because they’re nothing but facts. But you need those facts for [the] discussion that you might have a week from now so I feel lectures have a place.

When you give someone a little bit of information and then they discuss it and are unsure and have more questions, they develop a desire to actually know what it is. Another big thing is when you’ve discussed it and then she tells you what it is, you really understand it. If she had just come out and told you, you might memorize it and spit it back out on a test and that’s it. It’s really the experience in the discussion that makes you understand what she’s lecturing about.

Sarah: We have read through the [textbook] and done Supreme Court cases. Then we take one for each person and do presentations on them. So we learn from ourselves and then we present to the class. A lot of time your peers will learn from you, almost even better. Earlier in the year we would read a book, but then we would write papers and [have] lectures within the class. We all sit in a circle and discuss what we think on issues–not even issues from the textbook, but sometimes even issues that were happening today–big issues, especially around September 11 [2001]. We do use textbooks, but it’s actually more of an at-home thing because the students in seminar are responsible enough to do the homework and we learn it on our own. That frees up class time to discuss other real-life issues. That way you can take what’s in the textbook and relate it to what’s going on now. A lot of times what happens in classroom environments is that you just read out of the textbook and you can’t relate it to anything else that’s going on. With civics, you have to be able to relate it to what’s going on in today’s world.

Tony: This has given us a hands-on example and shows us exactly what happens in Congress with debates and people fighting over what they think is important and prioritizing the different parts of the budget. In this type of a classroom, it provides a very intellectual stimulus. Everyone has to participate in order for it to work because otherwise you can’t decide on anything. When everyone participates, you have different opinions and you have to compromise, which seems to work a lot better than just having it read to you. You can’t see an example you haven’t heard and done yourself.

The issues

Alex: I know that I’m not working and I don’t get a paycheck but I’m sure that the day I get my first paycheck I’m not going to want to hear that I’m going to have to pay half to the government. Many people don’t like paying their taxes but they know they have to do it because you don’t have a choice. I sometimes wish there were other ways that the government could get money besides taxes, but there aren’t. It’s something that has to be done.

Andrew: I thought we were just going to run numbers and percentages–just split everything down the middle. I wanted to fund certain sections more than others. I then realized that other people wanted to fund different sections. So it was a mess in the beginning but we finally got everything straightened out. What happened is that I had a conflict with [another student] over one issue, and that was about education vs. defense. In the end, we decided to give them equal funding. He was concerned about the oil drilling that they wanted to do in Alaska. I was kind of for it but I really wanted to get off of oil. I wanted to avoid the whole situation completely. So we compromised and we made up a plan that we were going to devote most of our money that goes into energy into research. It worked out fine in the end. Oh yeah, it took awhile. [The other student] is an environmentalist. He really didn’t want us to drill oil. He felt that if we do that, we would destroy a lot of our nature and beauty. I believe that it’s very important, too. I know if I had kids, I would like to have them be able to go to a national park. He was convinced that anything that goes to energy goes to helping produce oil. I realized that I thought it just went to research. So it was really just combining all of this information together and putting together a plan.

The group's process

Alex: The first day we were just brainstorming. As the day went on, we realized this is kind of fun so we really started to put in what we believed in. The first budget we presented–we loved that budget. This is a really good budget and we think if the government took that budget, it would have worked really well. Everyone else presented [their budgets] and they’re all different, because different people [with] different beliefs [are] going to have a different budget. [When] we read the real budget it looked nothing like our budget at all.

[In] our original budget, defense was around seven or eight percent. The real budget was around 16 percent. That’s a lot different than what we thought was necessary and so we changed it and we ended up taking away from so many things. We had transportation around three percent. We had agriculture and labor around 1.5 percent. Eventually they all dropped down to like .25 percent. All of a sudden this budget that was really good was something that was horrible that we didn’t believe in any more. I think that took away from the feeling that we received doing the project, because now we’re going back from what we believe, writing what people want to hear. I think that that’s exactly what happened to us in day two where we had to change what we thought was a good budget into a budget that we didn’t like as much.

Day three we realized that we were going to present our revised budget so we kind of made some minor tweaking to the speech, because the speech was still addressing the people and now we were addressing Congress. Most quiet people don’t want to go last. I want to go first. I want to get it over with. When we got up there that’s when I started to speak out. I felt good about myself.

Andrew: Right now it’s sort of [at] opposite ends of the spectrum. I am really conservative. I am a Republican and [another student] is a liberal and very Democratic. From there it really flows from one side to the other. [A third student] is more conservative but she has a few liberal ideas. [A fifth] is about in the middle. Most of us have unique personalities. [My group mate] is an awesome guy. He knows so much about [the] environment and different trouble spots, and how things should go, while I prefer economic hands-on. I know a bunch about the stock market. My grandpa has been teaching me. I also knew a bunch about defense because its one of my hobbies–war and military. Most people have different things that they know about or specialize in. It is very helpful because our class is so diversified. Everybody has a different interest than everybody else. It is very helpful when you are trying to compile a bunch of stuff using a bunch of people in the group. It makes doing projects a lot more easier.

Caitlin: We started out deciding that we needed to have three different groups. We have money we need to go into states so that they can allocate it. The departments were divided into departments [and] entitlements (such things as Social Security, Medicare, Welfare). We need to have an interdepartment and we need to have an interentitlement. We were discussing how much should go into which area. Then [we talked about] coming up with programs. You have them every day in your life. You really don’t take the time to wonder where they come from so you really don’t say Medicare is a governmental program. You think it’s a money source. Coming up with programs was probably the hardest [task].

You are also using technology. We made databases, [did] word processing. We are also using our language skills to come up with our speeches. We are also using political knowledge and things such as having the knowledge of which departments to put it into. We are using things that she taught us from earlier years. Then also, we have kind of outside knowledge where politicians use these tactics to try and get their budget passed. Little things like [saying] “God Bless America.”

Emily: The first group was the conservative group. They were the ones that wanted to just go attack, attack, attack. I agreed with the second group probably more, because they wanted to pull us out of the other countries and focus on energy policy. Hillary Clinton is a really big advocate for different sources of energy. I asked a question about prenatal care. I think prenatal care is important because if you take care of a baby before it’s born then you won’t have to maybe spend as much once it’s born because it will have less birth defects or less problems. I read a statistic somewhere [that] every dollar you spend prenatally, you save 20 once it’s born.

George: She placed, I think, the most liberal kid in the class, which is me, and the most conservative kid in the class, in the same group. Coming from a conservative community, there are so many people around me that share his beliefs that I pretty much know what to expect. There have been a few debates, and we have been sort of arguing over a few things, but it’s not been too bad. There is [another member] who is enthusiastic and a peacemaker and adds humor to the situation. [A third member] sort of balances things out a little more. We did not get to work with [a fourth member] for most of the debate, but she sort of brings us back on track when we keep debating the same issue. I came to a pretty good compromise. I think that we talked about it for quite awhile, and we listed our priorities. We each got a little bit of our own priorities into the budget.

Michael: To start off with, we recognized that 60 or 70 percent of the budget goes to entitlements–social security, the payroll programs, Medicare, Worker’s Compensation–and paying interest on the national debt. So we just set aside 60 percent. We had 40 percent to split among the different cabinets of the executive branch. We pretty much just brainstormed on what we felt was most important, how much they should get, [and] what the American people would feel is most important right now, especially after September 11th, where everybody is in a big boost for defense and military and homeland security. But also there has been a big push from the America people for education and things like that.

I personally felt that the most important thing for the budget was education, but it was overwhelming that they all believed that military was more important. We decided that military got seven percent of the 40 percent we had left to allocate and we gave education 6.5 percent–close, but not quite what we gave the military.

Sarah: They are all very intelligent people and I guess I kind of assumed the role of leader within the group. I would ask them, “What do you think is the most important?” and they would list whatever ones they thought and then we would all talk about it and decide. One of the girls wasn’t very clear on some of the issues and we just explained those to her. When she understood, she was a lot better at adding more to the group. One of the boys is a little quieter but when you ask him, he has a lot to say. We started off by listing all the different cabinet positions and we thought about which ones would be the most important. We came down to defense, education, and the state department, and we just wanted to make sure that the ones that we thought were most important got the most money. I like to listen to what other people have to say and sometimes I feel like I’m talking way too much and I need other people’s input. So I would have to sit back and listen. If I didn’t understand or I wanted them to elaborate more for it to make more sense, I would definitely ask them questions. It’s so complicated for me to sit down and decide where this money is going to go because there are tons of people in this country who want the funds to go to different places and you know the lobbyists are pulling for it to go this way or the other. You have to decide as a President what you think the most important things are but once [you] present it to Senate then you have 100 Senators pulling it in each direction, trying to decide or compromise on where this money should go in supporting this country.

Tony: Our group was very, very liberal. We focused more on the environment. Because we were so liberal we [had] a lot of conflicts on how liberal we could be. [One student is] very, very liberal. He also had a lot of knowledge of things. He does a lot of reading outside of school and knew so much we were just mind-boggled. [Another student] and I are both very enthusiastic in school. We like what we do. We’re very interested in it so we both are very competitive and like the idea of this whole project. We both kind of wanted to be President, but I went ahead and let him be President. Since he was President, he was allowed to answer most of the questions and control a lot of the budget-making process. We were his advisors essentially.

The first day, we decided that we should prioritize what should be given the most money. So we decided as a group that education was important [as well as] defense and energy. But [one student] brought up the point that the Middle East is becoming a problem and that we needed to become more self-sufficient. [Another student] agreed, but they couldn’t agree on how much separation from the Middle East we should have. One [felt] we should be completely by ourselves and take away money from defense and put it into energy. That way we don’t even have to deal with the Middle East. [The other’s idea was] to wean ourselves off oil so we could have more research into alternate energy plans, clean air, and such. Essentially, all we did was debate on whether energy should be a top priority or one of the secondary ones and why.

We were the first group to present our budget to the Congress. I introduced [the] President. Everyone accepted our plan because we had essentially 12 percent of the budget going to education, defense, and energy. We didn’t really mention Veterans Affairs, [and] other things, like Health and Human Services, had very meager amounts.

After all the groups presented, Ms. Martin showed us how much is actually allocated to different programs. We were very shocked that Medicare receives 23 percent of the budget. Medicaid got seven percent. That’s up to 30, and then social security got like another 15 percent. We only allocated six percent of our budget to Health and Human Services–and that [had to] cover social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Then she told us to redo our budget according to this information. It was amazing. We ended up turning Veterans Affairs, which was at three percent, down to .5 percent of the budget. That’s still $20 billion, but that’s a huge decrease. We had severely decreased [education], even though we wanted to increase education so we could have better leaders of tomorrow.

Our second presentation was not accepted as much. Many people felt that the .5 percent going to Veterans Affairs was not enough, due to the baby boomer population that is currently receiving social security. They thought that a lot more money should be put into that area of the budget. We didn’t quite agree because of our liberal standpoint and the environmental conditions that we focused on. We hadn’t really thought that much about Veterans Affairs. A few members of our group figured that the older population is quickly dying out and that we need to put more money into the younger population. But we did make a good point at the end that even though we are decreasing funds there is a decrease in the population. As [one student] pointed out, a lot of senior citizens and veterans weren’t receiving adequate health care and social security because their state government hadn’t put enough into the postal service to deliver medications and testing kits and stuff to the people on time.

Civic education

Andrew: I find it pretty interesting. I am always trying to pick up new stuff and learn new things. Second of all, it kind of makes you realize how complicated things are in the Congress and how important it is that we take time to deliberate over these things.

Michael: Since I was a little kid the first math I learned was money so I knew that I would enjoy economics. But I didn’t know that I would enjoy the government part as much as I did. It’s really given me an in-depth understanding of how the government works, why it works, why we need it, why it’s important to vote, and why it’s important to do your part, support your legislation, and offer opinions because it’s ultimately from us, the constituents of the legislators, that they get their ideas for bills. Someone said that all it takes for evil to succeed is for enough good men to do nothing. So if we all do nothing then we will just have total chaos.

It’s really important from an early age to introduce these topics and then expand on them as [students] grow in maturity and mental ability. What’s been interesting about this class is that you’re not just studying the Constitution and the Amendments. You are studying economics. Since America is a capitalist system, money is a very important part of the government–actually, I feel the chief part of the government is how to deal with money. So they give you a brief history in economics of how the capitalist system works and then they introduce you to how the government plays an important role in the capitalist system–that it’s not 100 percent capitalist, that the government intervenes to stabilize the economy and why they do that. It’s important to have a firm understanding [of] how the economy works before you can truly understand the government.

Before this year, the only parts of the paper I read was the comics and the sports section. Now, the very least I do in the morning is read the main headline. If I have more time I’ll sit down and read the A section and grab some business news and learn more about what’s going on in the world. Another thing that I’ve been doing in the morning on the way to school when I’m riding with my dad is listen to NPR instead of zoning it out or listening to music.

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