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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

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

Teacher Perspectives: Leslie Martin

Leslie Martin teaches a two-semester course on economic, legal, and political systems to ninth-grade students at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, North Carolina. The course is called a freshman seminar in recognition of the fact that more than half of these students are considered gifted. These interview excerpts relate to a lesson in which students participated in a simulation, assuming roles first as the President and Presidential advisors and then as Members of Congress to develop and negotiate a Federal budget.

What students learned

Leslie Martin: This lesson achieved my objectives and more. The kids learned not only the importance of participating but [also of] gathering other people’s thoughts and ideas, and how they help to broaden your perspective. I loved it when you could see two or three members of the group building on each other’s ideas as well as correcting each other. I actually wrote down in my notes how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and how they really worked together, not just within the small groups but in the group as a whole. I think that if we had gone back and spent two or three more days, we really could have had some neat concepts of what we wanted to happen and also been more persuasive politically.

I think that they really got a feel for the dynamic between the President and Congress, [and] the adversarial nature of the budget process. We’ve talked about how long it takes to make a law and why it is so important that it takes so long–because you have to get every single person’s opinion to adjust it and make sure that it’s a good law. Even with this budget process, they have seen why it takes so long.

One group was actually looking at the income side and the spending side. They [asked], “Where does the money come from and how do we have to pay that out?” [Another group ended] up talking about energy standards from a conservative and a liberal perspective. They actually said to me, “I think that we are just about one second off of compromise.” I was really pleased. Another group ended up talking about an NPR [segment] on the Crusader that [they] had heard this morning [and why] we need weapons. [They] even talked about the situation where [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was not in favor of the Crusader but the guys underneath him were and how the guys below him had gotten the Senators on board [in the state] where the Crusader was made. They attached “pork barrel” to the discussion, so it actually built on what they had [studied] before. The interactions were all different, but they seemed to be on task in every single group.

Probably the most critical piece was the way the conversations diverged from budgeting to priorities and policy. When [one of the students said], “We can’t make a budget if we don’t know what our policies are,” that was an “aha” for him and for me–to recognize how important it is to say, “This is what I want to do, but how am I going to make it happen and where do I have authority?” The second piece of that “aha” was the realization that the budget won’t work without the involvement of Congress.

I thought it was funny when [one student used] what we call a political answer (e.g., “That’s an excellent question. Let’s move on.”) because we do talk about how you can respond without answering the question. We had people for more education, better benefits, lower taxes, and peace at home. Who can be against any of that? But the specifics are what really make or break it.

My original objective in having them create a budget from scratch and then revise it was to force the kids to see that you don’t live in a perfect world. There are constraints. That they didn’t like having to revise their budget really proves a point that you have to live within constraints. Would I change that? Probably not, because I think that the recognition that you have to deal with all those issues and that you really only have a little bit of leeway, while frustrating, is what you have to deal with. I didn’t point it out, but next time they hear what the President or Congress is going to do, they’re going to have to say, “Well they are going to try, but how much can they actually accomplish?”

Other reflections

Leslie Martin: I think [day one] went well. Things took longer. I was a little surprised and maybe even a little bit disappointed that the group who talked to me about gross domestic product couldn’t define it even in broad terms. We teach economics this semester and I really hit gross domestic product pretty hard because I want the kids to understand [how] fiscal policy affects GDP. I even emphasized that about 20 percent of gross domestic product is government spending–whether that’s [for] pens and pencils, or desks and chairs, or the Crusader, or the defense budget. I would have liked a little more involvement from some of the students. I could tell that there were three or four that were willing to participate more, and I had to get more out. Even when I was watching the small groups and the groups in the back of the class, they were just kind of leaning over, not contributing, not taking notes.

[On day two], I was pleased at the questions they asked [and] the way the students paid attention to the other student’s presentations. The speeches were great. Technology slowed us down a little, which I always forget about. The kids were real troopers in terms of making things happen and making it work. I was interested to see the way their budgets came out–a lot of focus on defense because of September 11th [and] a lot of focus on higher education. One of the groups even said, “We want to increase child development funding.” There was a recent article in Time about how teaching kids to read even before they get to first grade sets [them] on a much more successful academic career. That really couples with some things that we talked about in North Carolina.

[Day three] started off a little slowly but picked up. In the first presentation, the kids were a little more reticent or they didn’t know as much about the issue or what they were supposed to do. In the second presentation, they were more willing to jump in. I’m not sure if it’s because the issues were more interesting to them or they knew more about the issues. I felt that [the second] presentation covered more topics so it had more meat that they could respond to. They also started playing off each other. When I saw kids raising their hands, that’s when I felt it [was] going better.

Assigning students to groups

Leslie Martin: When I first started thinking about small-group work, particularly the first year or two that I taught, I was overwhelmingly frustrated. I know that it’s good for the students [but] I really avoided it sometimes. This year I said, “I need to do this. I need to make it happen. What makes groups effective?” I went back to some of my non-teaching experience, where I taught grownups how to work in groups. I said, “What is it that makes them successful?” I said, “They have a knowledge of themselves and other people (What kind of a person am I? Am I the kind of person that goes for a laugh? Am I the kind of person that waits to see what is going to happen? Am I the kind of person that charges to the front? How do I react with other people?)” I gave them a little personality test where I asked the students to describe themselves. I gave them a whole list of words (e.g., kind, smart, leader, gentle) and they said which word describes them best. Then we took [some] categories [from the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator on temperament and character, e.g., a more fun-loving type, an easy-to-get-along type, a person that is focused on the details. We asked students to say what they thought a person was and then an individual had to tell what they really were. Most of the time the students guessed right, partly because I think they are developing behavior skills. Some people think you can’t change personalities. That’s not what I was talking about. I was talking about how certain behaviors are more effective than others and then the kids had to affect behaviors that were not their normal behaviors. They had to role-play. Not only was it fun, the students saw that they can change their behaviors. We then talked about what made people effective and how hard it is to change. I taught the kids to be more aware of themselves and their other behaviors.

Next, I assigned roles. I said, “Here is the group that you are going to be in. For the duration of this particular activity there will be a note taker, a facilitator who will monitor, [and] a process for gathering input from each person.” I actually went so far as to say each person gets 45 seconds of time [when other members of the] group may not interrupt. So we had the personalities, we had the structure, and I monitored them and gave them feedback on how their group structures went. Then the monitor provided feedback within the group.

I am torn when I assign group work between random selection and individual selection. I got bit by randomly assigning a group. I probably had about eight groups of three, and three of those groups did not work well together. I had mothers calling me. “Oh my son worked so hard.” Then the mother of the other student said, “My daughter worked so hard.” It was the finger pointing that was not pleasant. After that, I sometimes let them pick their groups, particularly if it’s an out-of-school-activity. If it’s in school, where I can monitor it, once or twice I have had to pull a kid out of a group and talk to him. But I generally speak to both the kid and the group about what their behavior is doing.

[For this lesson] I randomly put them in groups. I have a history of simply picking birthdays and assigning all the kids who have birthdays in June to a group. Today I simply counted down five names alphabetically and announced their groups. I teach the students that you don’t get to choose whom you work with and that everyone has something to add. With this class, I don’t mix by ability because almost every single student is very high-ability or high-drive, and they tend to balance each other out.

Making groups more dynamic

Leslie Martin: In figuring out how to get more participation in the small groups, I think about it several times during the class period. Every time I think about it, I am making choices behind the scenes saying, “Ok, do I go on teaching the direct lesson? Do I stop for a moment and debrief? Do I go to the group and say, ‘Is everybody participating? Are you getting all of the input?’ Is it worth stopping the lesson in that moment for them to reflect on what they are doing?” I would really have liked after each group made their presentation to have the groups [ask themselves], “What worked about the group process? What did we do well? What didn’t we do well? Did everybody participate? What would we do differently to make sure that everybody participates on a relatively equal level?” I recognize that there will be leaders and students who are more reticent, but it’s that balance [that is important].

Questioning strategies

Leslie Martin: I use a questioning strategy in a variety of ways. I believe that teaching vocabulary is basic to any area of study. If you don’t know the foreign language of biology or civics or French, you can’t speak the language. I also believe that you have to know what the word means rather than reiterate something straight out of the book. One of the most basic questioning strategies that I use is I will ask an easy question: “What is the Bill of Rights?” A student will say, “It’s the first 10 amendments.” I will say, “Now, tell me why it’s important and what’s meaningful about it? Tell me what image comes to your mind when you think of the Bill of Rights.” I am consistently saying, “Ok, great answer. Now put it in your own words.”

The second [type of] questioning I use is something I have developed. It builds on not just knowing the definition but asking questions [like] “If that’s true, why is that true? Where does that come from? What makes you think that?” What I am trying to do is to get at all that stuff that goes behind the meaning of a word. I ask questions to make sure they understand themselves. By asking an open-ended or high-level question, they have to look inside and articulate the concept they are talking about in their own words.

I like to throw out a word and say, “Okay, tell me what that means.” I also ask them to expand. I have a tendency to say, “Go on, go on.” I want to do that in the small groups. I have seen one student say to another, “I don’t understand. Tell me what you mean. Explain it to me.” It’s students teaching each other [and] discovering through questioning how much they actually know.

I get kids to participate in a variety of ways. One of the techniques that I use is [to] say, “Who has not participated yet?” I will even put my hand in front of a child and say, “Put your hand down. I’ve heard from you four times already.” I’m not saying that, but my hand is. Sometimes I directly call on students. Sometimes I even say the next question is going to be yours. Sometimes, if I’m in the audience and I’m listening to a presentation, I help the students decide whom to call on but I’ve even gone so far as to give a question to a quiet student for them to ask. Sometimes it’s just breaking that ice. I want everybody to participate and it doesn’t work all the time. If I know a child is particularly interested in a topic and it’s affiliated I’ll push it a little bit and say, “Okay, what do you think about that, William?”

Keeping students on task

Leslie Martin: Probably the most challenging issue [is] keeping students on task, having all members of the group focus on building that budget. They may be distracted by the technology [or other things, e.g.,] last night there was the dance concert. Some of them will get off task from building a budget to solving the issues associated with the budget. One thing that I have done is to ask one group member to be a facilitator. It has worked very well [when] a student says, “Hey, what do you think?” not only getting input from the students but also saying, “Hey, you’re going off, that’s not what we need to do. How does it relate?” Another technique I have used to keep students on task is that I ask each student at the beginning of the group work to jot down [his or her] own notes about what they believe. Sometimes, if they don’t have pencil and paper out in front of them, they rely on the other students and it’s a little bit reactive and that sometimes allows their mind to wonder. If each student takes a minute or two and jots down what they believe is important, then everyone has something to contribute and they look forward to getting to their topic.

Achieving standards

Leslie Martin: Standards are an important part of teaching these days, particularly here in North Carolina. The class that I’m teaching is very, very regulated. There is an end-of-course test, which means that at the end of the year the students will take a test based on the standards. I look at the standards every year at the beginning. I look at the standards from there on probably every month or so and [ask], “Am I teaching this?” Our standards are very specific. They are not a list of vocabulary words. They are not a list of concepts. They literally say the students shall understand, be able to repeat, analyze, and see the impact of government on the economy. So it’s not just [discussing] what the government does to help the economy. They actually have to be able to analyze. For me that is much more hands-on, much more relevant, and also much more difficult to teach. That’s part of the reason that I use the textbook as a jumping-off point. If I haven’t hit something as hard because I don’t think it’s important, at least the students will have heard about it.

Time management and balancing what you have to get done with asking the students to reflect on their own learning is [something] you have to do every day, every week, every month. I have 10 goals and within each goal I have between three and 15 objectives, [e.g.,] “The student shall be familiar with, analyze, provide feedback, and understand the budgeting process.” That’s one of 130 that I am dealing with. I have multifaceted obligations to prepare my students for the test. I try not to teach to the test [but] to prepare my students to understand government and economics, to be good people, to understand relationships, to understand their own learning, to understand other people’s learning, to share responsibilities and understand [that] with rights go responsibilities, and not take things for granted. Every day, I look at that balance of time. Am I teaching vocabulary? Am I teaching concepts? Am I teaching them to get along? It varies almost by the day. The week before we take an end-of-course test, I don’t spend as much time saying, “Tell me about your learning process.” I say, “Do you know this vocabulary word? What is GDP? What is the Bill of Rights?” I just try to pick up on what I think the kids need and sometimes what I think I need.

I do review at the end of the year and I do a traditional review but I’m going to go back to these broad-based activities. I use the words. I ask the kids to repeat and tell me what they mean and I try to tie it together. Sometimes, [if] I hear an important news [story], particularly on the radio, we’ll bring it in, talk a little bit about it, and I’ll say, “What does this mean? How does it relate to what we’re talking about it? How are they interwoven?” So in terms of the standards I think I’m constantly trying to weave them in, rather than saying this is the standard that you have to know. I just connect them and use words over and over again.

Hands-on learning

Leslie Martin: I use hands-on learning processes because once students learn this way, they internalize [what they know]. There is that statistic that says what you hear, you keep 10 percent of, what you see and hear, you get 20 percent of, but the one where you keep the most is what you do. If I can take three to four days out and do this budget process, I have tied it to the economy. They know how the recession affects the economy and the budget. They know about creating a budget–the internal pieces, the compromises, the standoffs. They have got all of those pieces to tie together. They can use them not only in their next social studies class but in their life, their jobs, and with their peers.

Challenges for students

Leslie Martin: I think the most challenging aspect for the students will be the breadth and the depth of what I’m asking them to do. I want them to understand how encompassing and influential the budget that the President submits to Congress is. There are hundreds and hundreds of agencies that are funded by the government, some doing work with social issues, some doing defense work, some doing free trade, some dealing with people in prison. Every one of these is an important part of government, particularly as a reflection of society. I want them to understand how much it affects their life on a daily basis.

How you know the lesson is working

Leslie Martin: I think I will know that the lesson is on track when I see one of several different types of indicators. [One is] when I see a student saying, “I really think that we need to put more money there but I can’t because I already have money in this other bucket.” A second indicator is when students are working together and one says, “You know what? Let’s take a little money out of the defense budget and put it over there because if we increase free trade maybe we won’t need so much defense.” Student realization and students teaching each other are indicators for me that they’re really getting the process.

Role of the teacher

Leslie Martin: My role as a teacher in a situation like this is to set up a structure they can learn within–that they can bounce off each other to provide some grounding. [If, for example,] no one in the class knows what a word means or they need to connect it to the real world, I say, “Let me give you an example of how that works,” take their world experience and broaden it, and then take it back so that they can develop patterns. It’s a very different role from lecturing, from even giving a straight assignment with a rubric. At the same time, it’s a lot more challenging, a lot more interactive, and a lot more fulfilling for a teacher.

Teaching controversial issues

Leslie Martin: Teaching controversial issues is one of the challenges as well as a lot of the fun in teaching civics. Every person in this country has an opinion on just about every issue. When I take on a controversial topic, I do a variety of things. First, I will ask a student to define the issue. Then I may repeat what he says or I will say, “Tell me again what you said and emphasize these words.” Then I will turn to another student and say, “Give me your take on what he said.” Or, I will ask another student to comment. Sometimes a third student can repeat what the first student has said in his or her own words. So we begin this dialogue. I very rarely give my opinion. I do sometimes define the same issue in two different ways.

My favorite is abortion. Here in the South we have a lot of strongly religious students. I will say, “Students, let me ask you a question. How many of you support the right of an individual person to maintain control over their own thoughts, their own ideas, and their own body?” Almost every student will raise [his or her] hand. Then I will say, “This is a different issue. How many of you believe that life is a precious gift that should be treasured and nurtured from the very beginning?” Every student will raise [his or her] hand. Then I say, “Why is there such a big deal about abortion?” and it immediately opens up. I did it in this class and a student raised her hand [and said], “Well the Bible says its wrong.” I will turn around and say, “Well, that’s true, but what’s the problem with using the Bible as your reference?” Most of the time a student will say, “Because we don’t all believe in the Bible.” I will ask a lot of “why” questions, [e.g.,] “Why do you think this was the law? What is the difference between law and morality and ethics?” I have spent time with this class laying the groundwork [about] the difference between morals and ethics. I use “morals” as an individual development of ideas and “ethics” as more of a consensus of what we agree about in society.

Constructivist teaching

Leslie Martin: Constructivist teaching is a way to help students be successful in a variety of areas. I have several goals that I have to attend to. I teach a course that has a state-required test and when they go to take the test, they have to know certain concepts, certain vocabulary terms, most of which they have never seen before [this class] or they may not know what they mean in the technical sense. I also have a goal of making my students successful as people. Learning new interpersonal skills, learning new ways of thinking about things, new ways of feeling about things. I can lecture [and] give notes, [and] I do sometimes, but the hands-on activities, the building activities, the activities that make students think about what they feel, what they think, and why they think, give them that internal analytical piece to say who am I and why am I this way and where am I going.

I believe that to build on knowledge, to lay groundwork, we need to have hooks–things we already know and understand deeply. Sometimes students come to me and they have many, many hooks–a little coat rack of hooks–and they can quickly string together the concepts and put them between what they already know, building on their knowledge. Constructivist strategies [help them tie what they learn] to real-life experiences. I believe that part of what teaching is about is reaching your head and your heart, and that once you feel something and experience it, you understand it.

I like to use group discussion and questioning, particularly with a class like this, because I believe that they know more than they actually think they do. They make connections within their own mind, but they also build on what other students are saying. When one says, “I know what you mean but let me expand it,” they are actually learning from each other. I believe that the learning that you do yourself stays with you and [that] teaching yourself to learn is an important process. Hands-on activities firmly embed [new ideas] not only in their minds but also in their hearts and in their routines. They are more easily connected. [They say things like], “I remember when we did this that way. Let me apply a new approach.” So it’s almost a strategy, a theory that they can apply each time to analyze. For teachers, it lays groundwork. Part of what I am doing as a ninth-grade teacher is teaching basic concepts and skills that these students will apply [at] the next level and the next level and the next level. I am trying to [teach] some concepts that the students will pull on when they are in United States history. So, partly I believe that I am helping other teachers. The other advantage of constructivist [methodologies] is they are more fun. They are more interactive. I learn [about] the students more as people. I think that one of the cores of being a good teacher is knowing your students as individuals first.

Using a variety of teaching methodologies

Leslie Martin: I use hands-on activities as much as possible, but as much as possible could be day in and day out [and] I don’t think that’s truly possible. Teaching is a balance between routine–knowing what to expect in a classroom both for the students and the teacher–and variety. There is a spectrum. I sometimes lecture. I sometimes say, “Here are some things that I have to get you to take some notes. We will build on it.” Sometimes I say, “Here is a free-form writing experience. Throw your thoughts on paper.” Then we have small groups. Sometimes we literally discuss an issue. Sometimes we actually debate an issue. I have to consider where we are in this school year [and] what is going on with the students. Occasionally, I will assign a reading. I will say, “Tomorrow we are going to answer these five discussion questions in a round-table discussion.” If the kids come in and maybe they all had to go to a soccer game or there was a band concert [and] half of the group hasn’t read it, I literally will change in the middle. I always have a backup plan.

I use textbooks as a diving board. They are the tool, the board that gets you out over the pool, and once you are out on the edge of the diving board, you dive into the rest of it. I use textbooks to give overviews, outlines, vocabulary–a base for what we are going to talk about. I will ask the students to read a chapter focusing on certain things. I may give them a worksheet because I think that it helps them structure their learning and find out what’s important. From there, I take that chapter and I say, “What is this really about? Give me five ways it impacts your life.”

To say that I choose the methodology is much broader than what I really do. I am not aware of the questioning piece of it. It doesn’t work with all my students and it doesn’t work every time. I use simulations, particularly when I find something that I personally know I can recreate into a simulation. Some activities or processes call out to be simulated and they are easier to set up.

The other [thing] I will say [is], “Let’s do something different. This is a really dry process or a dry subject and I don’t like it. I don’t want to teach it. I want different ways of helping the kids learn.” Sometimes I will say, “You guys teach this to each other. I’m getting old and tired of the subject. It’s too routine for me.” I learn from them when I see them teaching each other.

Connecting constructivism and civics

Leslie Martin: Being a citizen is so much more complex than going to the voting booth and punching a card. It involves gathering information, making informed decisions, listening to the talking heads, listening to people that you respect, analyzing that information, understanding compromise, understanding who is going to be the best person to represent you, and then making a choice. I believe constructivist strategies create the best citizens because they involve reading, analyzing, talking, listening, and making choices in a structured and safe environment. I am constantly appalled by the [low] level of participation in our government. The roles of being a citizen are many and diverse, and if we can’t help students to learn that in schools, we are not doing our jobs. I start off the semester where I teach civics by asking my students, “What is the purpose of education?” They say to know more stuff, to be well rounded, to go to college. I remind them that ultimately the purpose of education is to make good citizens. Yes, you have to take a test. Yes, you have to write papers, but ultimately I will achieve my goal if you are a good citizen in terms of all of the different things that it means. I emphasize to them that if you want to change the world, which everyone should, you have to know how to do it and that’s what I am going to teach.

Her background

Leslie Martin: I came from a family where it was not a question of “if,” it was a question of “where” [she would go to college]. My father thought that girls should be teachers. That way, they can have a little pocket money but be home to support their husbands. I didn’t buy into that argument but I did discover a love of history in my college years. At the same time, I didn’t know what to do with myself. At one point I was going to be a rare book librarian but the popularity of the MBA was also on the rise. I was accepted at Duke University. My plan at the time was to manage nonprofits. I was recruited by Eli Lilly and it was there that I did my first stand-up training. I liked the corporate world for a variety of reasons but I felt like I had done most everything I wanted to do in the corporate world. I managed people. I moved up a little bit. I had a little status but I still held in the back of my mind [that] I needed to give back. I needed to do more and to make change. While I was in the corporate world, my theory was I will make decent money and I will give a lot of it to charity. But I wanted to move to something more hands-on.

At one point I was hired to implement a piece of software. I came home one day and said to my friend, “I love this.” He said, “Well of course you do. You are in charge, and you know more than everybody else.” Years later I began volunteering through the Junior Achievement Program and after a couple of job changes, I went back to the teacher I had worked with and said, “Do you think I will be a good teacher?” and she almost went through the roof. So I applied to graduate school and was accepted. I became a teacher.

I decided to become a civics teacher for several reasons. I love the kids. I love the energy that they bring to the classroom, and I love the curiosity. I also love encouraging them to be curious. I love the unpredictability of what they know and what they don’t know [and] the flexibility that it offers me as a person. I love being able to say, “This is a moment I can use. Maybe I can open their eyes to an experience that they haven’t had before.” When a child comes to me and says, “You know Ms. Martin, I figured out where our taxes go,” that makes it worthwhile. I believe that participation in the government, in your community, is a way of giving back. By teaching, I am giving back but if I can help these students to see how important [it is] for them to give back, to take responsibility for themselves, for their community, and their government, then they truly are full people regardless of their job.

Her evolution as a teacher

Leslie Martin: When I look back to the first year that I taught, or even further back to the months that I student-taught, my only focus was having something to say to the students every single day and keeping a riot from happening. Each year, I tried new things. I was skeptical about discussions. I was skeptical about group work. I am still skeptical and nervous about group work, but each year I become more comfortable not only with the key concepts that I want the students to have but also moving from my curriculum to a moment where I can talk to the students about real issues. I am much more in control of myself. I also have an increased depth of knowledge. I know now that if I don’t cover a subject on the day that I am supposed to because something else important happens, I will get to it later on.

After probably my first year of teaching, when I was learning the material as much as the students were, I began to look for different ways to present things. You always have research papers. Those are not as interesting. They are necessary because learning to write is an important skill. But I said, “What can we do that will make it interesting and fun for the kids but still be relevant to the course work?” I think there are lots of ways to make things relevant, partly because I believe that civics and economics are all around us. I can make those connections and if I can teach the kids to make those connections, they see its relevance.

I began to look for alternative ways to lecture. I don’t really like bookwork, worksheets. They’re boring for me. They are boring for the kids. I think that I go back to that spectrum that you do have to have some structure here, some basic lecture, vocabulary, all the way to the end, which is what do you want to learn, how do you want to learn it? I’m not there yet. I am probably somewhere in the middle.

How to get started

Leslie Martin: I tend to try new strategies when I get bored with the strategy that I am using. There are tons and tons of lesson plans on the Web. I listen to other teachers. I have lunch with a group of teachers regularly. Sometimes I take a strategy that I have learned from another teacher for one concept but I apply it to a different concept. I have some tremendous flops, but I have also had some great successes. It’s that balance between routine and doing something creative. You have to have both, so each year I remember what worked. I revise it. I say, “What did I like about that? What didn’t I like? What worked with this lesson? What didn’t?”

One year, I wanted to teach the students the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to talk about where it came from and what’s in it. The first year I said, “Go home and read the Declaration of Independence and let’s talk about it.” The students couldn’t understand it. The next year I took the Declaration of Independence, printed it out in really bold letters, and gave each student one of the grievances. They had to go home and tell what that one sentence meant. The next day in class we went through each complaint. By the end, I had them take notes in modern language and I said, “Do you guys see why the colonists were so mad?” and they said, “If anybody did this to me, I would be ticked off, too.” I am constantly trying new things in a different context, and looking at what I did and what worked the best.

The easiest thing is simply ask the students to get into small groups and assign each student to read a page and a half and be responsible for knowing it. In small groups, each student teaches the other students. That was one of the most successful things I ever did. They had a shared responsibility. Make sure the students have something written so that they can speak from it and you, as a teacher, can make sure that each student has done the assignment. If they have to teach it and come up with a series of test questions, they know it. You haven’t had to do it. [Another] piece I use [is to] say, “Give me this idea and relate it to daily life.”

Role of technology

Leslie Martin: I’d like technology to actually [have] a bigger role, but I can’t always make that happen. I will do this activity again where we have laptop computers for small groups. Almost every student in this class has access to the Internet at home. I’ve used activities where they had to go find their own resources. Many times if we do small-group work I will require that the presentations be in PowerPoint. We do have technology difficulties and sometimes I’m very frustrated when it doesn’t work because it takes class time that is really valuable.

I think about using technology in a variety of ways. I really like when all my students have access to the Internet to send them on a Web search. I’ll say go and surf and see what you can find. They are using each other’s Web sites. I’ve found that if I am too broad in my directions I get all kinds of data. My students in general don’t look at who put what on the Web. The Web is a free place and anybody who wants to can put a Web site out but that doesn’t mean they are experts. So I will say these are the five Web sites that I want you to use as your basis. There are others that you can use but make sure it [was developed by] an expert.

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