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I teach government.  I have assigned curricula for both of my preps, the state-mandated course of Local, State and National Government, and the Advanced Placement (college-level) course in U.S. Government and Politics.     There are things for which the students must be prepared, because in May they will sit for required exams, from the state and the college board.  They must past the former to graduate - and even my AP students must sit for that.  And the AP exam determines whether they receive college credit for their efforts.  

I view my responsibility as going well beyond that.  I believe I have a responsibility to prepare my students to be active participants in the society in which they live.  That includes political participation.  And if I expect that, then I have an additional responsibility to help them understand that society, and what is happening politically.

This is a time when the latter responsibility may be more important than the formal curriculum.  It is not the first such time since I arrived at the school in 1998.

Let me explain.

Any election cycle requires a certain amount of focus.  It is an opportunity to connect what my students are studying with what is happening around them.  It is one reason I often juggle the sequence of units so that their formal studies connect with what is in the news.  It is of course far easier to do with a presidential cycle than with the off-year Congressional cycle.  This year, however, is almost in a class by itself.

Almost, but not completely.  There have been two other occasions where our major focus became more what was in the news than what was in the book.  The first was my very first year, when the course was in 9th grade. 1998 was the year of impeachment, and I can assure you that my students wound up knowing more about impeachment than most adults.  We explored the history of impeachment, dating back to the administration of Thomas Jefferson.  When HOuse Members were making their statements, we watched live on C-Span.  We explored relevant material from current publications and from historical publications.  We looked at impeachment of judges and cabinet members as well as that of Andrew Johnson and the Judiciary Committee's actions towards Richard Nixon, including both Barbara Jordan's magnificent statement at the opening of the hearings, and the actual vote, with Peter Rodino's voice breaking as he voted "Aye" on the first charge.  And we watched the Senate vote.

And in 2000, when the course was still in 9th grade, we had the election that would not end.  It became an opportunity to explore issues of Federalism, how the appellate process worked.  The students learned that our methods of counting ballots were not consistent, that elections were largely under state rules, and that within states there could be great discrepancies as to method of voting and ability to recount.  They saw what a butterfly ballot looked like, not by looking at it as a picture in the newspaper, but how it might appear when one was attempting to punch out the right hole, with old eyes perhaps looking through glasses that further distorted what one saw.   And well before Michael Moore they got to understand the process of actually accepting the electoral vote in the Congress.  They also learned the parallels between the election of 1876 and that of 2000, including that the electoral votes of Florida were at the heart of both disputes.

This year is different.  Of course we have a heated presidential election.  And since a majority of my students are Black there is a strong interest in the fate of Obama.  For last year's students that meant a certain focus during the primaries, even as they fell well after when we normally examine elections.  For a while we looked at both parties, but the quick Republican  decision in favor of McCain meant our focus was far more on the Democratic contest.  And since two of my AP students were among the four officers of the national Teens for Clinton organization, there was opportunity for input from students about what was happening.

Now we are in a general election campaign.  We do spend some time discussing what they see.  They were required to watch acceptance speeches and the first debate.  Many watched the VP debate, if for no other reason curiosity about the two candidates.  Fewer watched the most recent debate, but enough to warrant discussion, and to examine their reactions.

But this year there is another, simultaneous story, one which touches issues not addressed anywhere in our curriculum, and that is the financial meltdown.  And I suspect that it will be a major part of discussions not only today but in the next few weeks as well.  After all, while our markets will not open until I am in my 2nd period class, we already know that on top of yesterday's severe decline on  Wall Street, the Asian markets, especially Japan, are way down, and as I write this the European markets are down from 7/5% (Ritan) to more than 9% (Germany), and it is not at all unreasonable to expect another severe decline in the Dow Jones and other American indices.

This crisis has required me to educate myself, so that I could help my students make more sense of it.  I knew a little about markets, but the new world of derivatives and debt swaps was something about which I had had only the vaguest understanding, largely through reading the warnings offered by people like Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post.  As the current crisis has unfolded I have had to read extensively, and seek out people whose understanding exceeds my own.  And then I have had to synthesize and condense down to what my students, who have little background in matters economic, regulatory, and the like, would be able to understand.

One reason I enjoy teaching government is because there is always something contemporary.  There are multiple occasions for teaching in any news cycle.  Yes, one can do that while teaching history, showing connections.   But this is immediate.

And that means each day I face the same challenge, of balancing the content required by the curriculum of each class with the material helping shape the students' lives.  It is an intense challenge.  And at a time where our understanding is quite incomplete - as it is with respect to the finances - that task becomes even more intense, and challenging.

I feel quite prepared to explore the election cycle, to explain what polling data means, to help the students understand the expressions they see in speeches, debates, advertisements.   We can look at historical examples in order to compare this cycle to previous ones.

But there is nothing quite like what our markets and financial systems are now experiencing.  Even the crash in 1929 or the panic in the late 1890's does not really illuminate what is happening now.  That creates a real challenge.  We can see politicians, bureaucrats, business executives and pundits all struggling to find answers.  If they don't have them, then surely I have little to which I can turn with assurance to explain to my students.

William Greider once asked as the title of a book, "Who Will Tell the People?"   I think of that often as I try to determine "What will I teach the children today?"   And even as I leave home, as I will in perhaps 30 minutes, for classes that begin a bit more than 2.5 hours from now, I cannot be sure.  I will have to check market figures, breaking news, and I may have to be adjusting from period to period.  I want my students attempting to understand, because what is happening may shape their futures in major ways.

I will continue to advance through the curriculum.  I will also attempt to weave in what I can from the first draft of history, the news.

This is my challenge.  This is my world, and welcome to it.


Originally posted to teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:21 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  mojo mug (52+ / 0-)

    Looking at the news this morning, and realizing how much the world around us is rapidly changing, this is what was on my mind this morning, so I decided to share.

    Hope you don't mind.


    do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

    by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:22:29 AM PDT

  •  Painting a rich picture... (4+ / 0-)

    A small part of understanding future's (the current impending) bottleneck, I think, must be a good understanding of exponential growth and commensurate weakness of widely held capitalist assumptions.

    Are Humans Smarter Than Yeast? (video clip)

    Learning must be an important value, particularly for "type 3" problems, problems that we must struggle together to diagnose, and that require us, together, to resolve.

    His appreciation for learning and for group learning, including interest-based negotiation, is part of the reason I was an early, enthusiastic supporter of Obama.

    "The most significant difference between now and a decade ago is the ... rapid erosion of spare capacities at critical segments of energy chains." Cheney, 2001

    by Akonitum on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:33:14 AM PDT

  •  I have general questions for you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    behan, The Zipper, farbuska
    1. When teaching contemporary politics, how do you keep any sense of neutrality?  I mean, something like 45% of people will vote for McCain
    1. If there are McCain supporters in your class, how do you protect them in their (I presume) small minority status:

    You and I and all kossacks know that Obama is better.  But it seems to me that, as a teacher, you'd have to try to figure out why some people support McCain, even some of the good reasons that people might do so.  

    How do you do that?

    •  I have explained before (8+ / 0-)

      as an analyst I am neutral, examining the information that is available.  I ask my students for their ideas and help them to express them better.

      I also do not pretend that I don't have a preference.  Students could easily go on line to find mine.

      I try to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is expressed, and it becomes incumbent upon me to express the other side if no student will do so.  because I am willing to take on that responsibility, those students who are in the minority - as a majority black school our tilt is heavily democratic and even more heavily towards Obama - feel that my room is a safe place to express a minority opinion.

      I offer praise to McCain where I can - such as his opposition to drilling in ANWR.  I want my students to know how to disagree without being disagreeable or personal.

      do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

      by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:41:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I remember worrying about the Soviets as (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    behan, 3goldens, farbuska

    a kid, like so many. It is funny about childhood and early adulthood...adults seem to always think that you are too young to take part in the conversation, but it seems like everyone can remember back to an early age something political that caused them great fear. The kids of today will remember this financial crisis.

  •  Great New Hope or Hate Video (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    banjolele, farbuska

    the above is a great new video entitled "Hope or Hate".  It features hateful McCain supporters at his recent Bethlehem PA rally, contrasted with Obama.

    JPZenger was a newspaper publisher whose jury trial in the 1730s for seditious libel helped establish the freedom to criticize top government officials.

    by JPZenger on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:39:10 AM PDT

  •  For a great discussion of the meltdown (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    3goldens, Eloise, SnowItch, farbuska

    Check out Ira Glass's show from tis past weekend, "This american Life."  I haven't checked, but there is sure to be a podcast at

    He interviewed several corporate executives about what was happening, and they discussed the commercial paper markets, and how the failure of Lehman Bros. shook the confidence of the market to its core.  Short-term lending absolutely dried up, which meant that corporations could not get loans to cover payroll, accounts payable, etc. until the next infusion of revenue from sales of goods or services.  The end result is that business could grind to a halt.  That almost happened, and it still might.  The world Central Banks' coordinated .5% rate cut won't make a bit of difference if none of the lenders think they will be paid back.

  •  What (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, SnowItch, farbuska

    a challenge. Trying to keep up with the news cycle and making breaking events part of the curriculum must be both fascinating and exhausting.

    Your students may or not appreciate your diligence. But, at some time down the road, I'll be it will occur to them.

    Common Sense is not Common

    by RustyBrown on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:44:01 AM PDT

  •  Teach them how to think critically (8+ / 0-)

    and independently, and show them the bias and manipulation in advertising and the media.   This is the most important thing they will remember their whole life.  Facts they will forget but how to analyze and think will be a gift forever.  It sounds like you are doing this.  

    "I believe marriage should be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers." Tina Fey as Palin.

    by fearisthemindkiller on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 03:55:46 AM PDT

    •  And how to teach themselves. (6+ / 0-)

      Teach them how to research, how to weigh sources and fact-check what they read, and how to reason with the information they've learned.  As fearis said, they'll forget most of the specific facts you teach them.  But they won't forget how to teach themselves, and that will serve them well in every field of life.

      •  Great Point (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        This is especially relevant to this diary. Ken has essentially said that what he teaches his first class today may be out of date by the time he teaches his last class today. If that's the case, imagine how out of date the information will be when these students are in the mortgage market ten years from now or when they are casting their vote in the Election of 2052 (which most of them will be around for).

        It seems to me like this is an excellent time to print out some columns from 'experts' and have your students evaluate them and attempt to synthesize them. It also would be a good time to ask your class what they would have to do to become informed on why the stock markets are tanking and what the impacts will be. These are difficult questions, but asking difficult questions is our job. (Like Ken, I teach high school.)

        Good luck on this, Ken. Teaching math is hard enough. Teaching Government well must be awfully close to impossible.

        McCain, stop saying that you're my friend.

        by Reino on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 04:51:03 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  all that is a part of my instruction (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        even though to a large degree none of those is evaluated in the outside testing.

        At least in order for my AP course to be approved by the College Board, I have to have submitted a syllabus which demonstrates that I am covering a variety of skills not necessarily included in what is tested.

        do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

        by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 05:04:06 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thank you, and yes, it's sad.... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Thank you for everything you do for your students, and yes it's sad that the testing folks don't know how to (or don't care to) test the skills that our students most need: how to research, evaluate your sources, assimilate information, and basically ... teach yourself.

          Also, and this is purely my own opinion, but when it comes to contemporary policy you're usually far better off looking at history rather than current events.  Our information base for current events is so skewed by rumor, mistakes, and political agendas that it's often all but useless.  It's impossible to "know what the facts are" now, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or here in the U.S.  It takes years if not decades to sift out the dross and document the salient facts of an event.

          You can get ahead of that information curve by looking at historical events where similar causes and conditions were in play.  Often the conclusions you can draw from those historical events are more reliable than those you could draw from "the best" current information, because current information is so contaminated.

          That's why Barack Obama was ahead of the curve on Iraq while Joe Biden - immersed as he was in "the best" current information - got it wrong.  (Biden has said as much in interviews, by the way.)  We'd get better intelligence from the CIA if they employed fewer "spies" and more historians....

          •  consider from perspective of government class (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Cassiodorus, NCrissieB

            we are seeing Congress and federal agencies acting in new ways, or at least in ways not covered by the textbook.  Thus there is a need to make sure students understand how things are changing.

            We do look at the historical conditions that have led to the development of some government agencies, or led to the passage of certain laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Votings Rights Act of 1965, Title IX, War Powers Act . . .etc.  

            But I still think it important to examine things in real time so that students learn how to apply lessons of the past to understanding the present.

            Oh, and I am able to respond to you because right now my student teacher is instructing the class.


            do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

            by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 06:09:52 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Maybe not so "new." (0+ / 0-)

              Most of the things Congress and the Treasury are trying now have been tried before, in very similar ways.  Look to our responses during the Great Depression and World War II, especially FDR's War Production Board, which effectively nationalized the U.S. economy.  That's one off the top of my head; if you'd like, I could come up with a few more to mix into the stew.

              These temporary expedients tend not to stick in our memories, especially three generations removed from the events.  But they have been tried before, and sometimes they've worked quite effectively.  More often than not, whether a policy is effective is a function of the people assigned to implement it: their experience, ability, and their motivations.

              •  some have, but not in combination (0+ / 0-)

                and the way we are authorizing them is also somewhat different.  

                I am aware of the history of previous economic interventions.  I would argue that looking at what FDR did is somewhat deceptive, because he came into office with a mandate to address many of the issues because of how he campaigned.  Bush, having run as an opponent of intervention and government regulation, is in a far dicier position.

                do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

                by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 08:21:41 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

          •  And additionally.... (0+ / 0-)

            I don't know to what extent your curriclum limits your sources, but if at all possible try to expose the kids to newspapers and magazines of the times when discussing historical events.

            One of the things you learn when looking at those is how similarly the media and the public react in the midst of events.  It helps to break the logjam of "Yeah, but with the media we have now...."  Our media now aren't much different - better or worse - then they've always been.  A lot of them do try to get the facts, but getting the true and relevant facts while an event is happening is more blind luck than skill.

            Recognizing that, seeing how often the historical media were wrong, and how they tend to be wrong in similar ways, makes it easier for students to "see through" present day reporting.  They can intuit likely but unreported present day facts by knowing the limits of contemporary reporting and the facts that usually get missed at the time.

            Couple that with an understanding of how similar historical events played out, in light of causes and conditions, and you can get a much better idea of "what's happening" than you would from reading even "the best" current sources.

            •  already done (0+ / 0-)

              for example, when I taught US History I would have kids read contemporaneous accounts of John Brown's raid, and they were amazed to realize that there were newspaper stories on the street even as the conflict was ongoing.

              I also own a number of pages from historical publications of that time which I would also use.

              Please remember - I have been at teaching for a while now, and am well aware of resources, and actually reasonably competent in finding and applying them, even if i do not discuss everything that happens in my classroom here.


              do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

              by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 08:23:34 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

    •  critical thinking an essential part of (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      what goes on in my classes


      do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

      by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 04:31:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  What about exercises using toxic e-mails, etc.? (0+ / 0-)

    You could use those going out on both sides, and YouTube videos as well.

  •  cannot access Youtube on school network (0+ / 0-)

    and probably would not - the video might not be a problem, but when you bring it up what could be visible on the side bar could be

    do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

    by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 04:32:49 AM PDT

    •  there are ways to download clips from YouTube (0+ / 0-)

      onto a VCD or DVD. I'm not technical enough to do it but my 17-year-old can, LOL! And if it's a clip that's been put up by the person who actually made it, it's worth dropping them a line to ask if they can send you a copy in playable format. Most would be more than happy to do so...

      Political Compass says: -8.88, -8.67
      "We never sold out cos no one would buy."--J Neo Marvin

      by expatyank on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 04:45:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  what I really need is often otherwise avail - (0+ / 0-)

        for advertisements, at the site the Living Room Candidate

        for news stuff, at various news websites

        occasionally a few other sites as well

        I do try to limit my use of video, because I need more time working on evaluating other sources, including websites and print

        do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

        by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 05:05:38 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  This reminded me of (0+ / 0-)

    my Amer Hist class at college during Watergate hearings. It's hard to keep current events out of class now, isn't it? Hope your kids are getting a sense that they are seeing history happen. BTW, your reward is in heaven right? wink***

    Let tyrants fear.-Queen Elizabeth I

    by Virginia mom on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 04:54:45 AM PDT

    •  my reward is right now - (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      working with the students and seeing them develop is its own reward

      and while more money would be nice, I make a decent salary.

      do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

      by teacherken on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 05:06:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  In a perfect world... (0+ / 0-)

        My children would have had a government teacher as caring and vigilant as you.

        Thanks for what you do.

        Blessings -
        Another teacher

      •  Wow- if we had teachers like you in our school- (0+ / 0-)

        I'd not be homeschooling my kids.

        By the time we had the first debate, I had thrown my curriculum out the window.  We are focusing pretty much on the election and the economy now, along with American History. (I'm using Howard Zinn's Peoples history of the United States as my primary history text) I figure we can go back and pick up Shakespeare and Geometry in January after the election has ended.

        My son has taken a particular interest in politics and I'm encouraging him to watch this all this.  He explained the Keating Five scandal to me!  He has a sharp analytical mind and though he says he wants to major in Computer Science in college- I hope he will take a least a couple Poly-sci classes-He's very interested in it, and I think he would be good at it.

  •  Teach AP Physics here. :) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Hello fellow teacher.

    You left out the most important Hunga-Dunga! - Groucho

    by president raygun on Fri Oct 10, 2008 at 06:22:26 AM PDT

  •  I used to try to teach my below level freshmen (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    how to was hard with a group that was so gullible. I used to go over Urban Legends and tell them to use common sense. Getting them to evaluate facts as "true" or "false" was hard. Other teachers were saying facts are "true"!!!!
    Teaching is always a many ways I miss it...but it was stressful. A colleague of mine who was retiring this year, suffered a heart attack yesterday and died. I am glad I retired early....this would have been the year I would have retired if I had stayed.

  •  Teaching has one goal: (0+ / 0-)

    This crisis has required me to educate myself,

    If you get out of school and you cannot educate yourself, you have failed as a student. It is the duty of every teacher, one I can see you take seriously, to give children the tools to educate yourself as an adult. Those who cannot become poor citizens, easy targets for con men, frustrated and angry people who lash out. Thanks for doing your part, Ken.

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