Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ideas for Teaching about the Constitution: Representative Government

Of the five principles (federalism, representative government, separation of powers, checks and balances and individual liberties), representative government is the one that hits the closet to home in big election years. In Illinois this year, we have a gubernatorial race this year, but that is never quite as interesting to students as presidential elections.

While it is not so difficult to to teach about the ways in which our government represents We, the People, I find it increasingly difficult to impress upon students the power of voting. As we all know, voter turnout in the United States is not something to brag about.  (Check out this link to voter turnout across the world - there is a dropdown menu for the U.S. and other nations.)  I wish I had a magic bullet for how to impress upon students that We, the People, still matter.  (Any ideas welcome.)

One idea I had is to share with students recent findings from a study about fish.  Oddly, a Princeton ecologist makes the argument--based on a study of fish-- that "collective ignorance is an essential feature of democratic governments, not a bug."  He argues that collective apathy helps check the power of extremists. Read this article from the Wall Street Journal for the details. It's kinda wacky and describing the findings to students, especially middle schoolers, might really arouse their indignation.

I was inspired recently by a Ted Talk by Eric Liu, former speechwriter for President Clinton and founder of a program called Citizen University designed to build citizenship (the website notes a curriculum for this coming soon). The title of the talk, "Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power" is provocative, suggesting to me that one way to engage students is to convince them of the power they have in changing the system. I think many of us today feel we have little power to impact anything, and that the concerns of government are far removed from our daily concerns. Listen or read the transcript of this might give you some good ideas. Also check out Citizen University's project Sworn Again America, which could work really well for middle schoolers.

Okay, so here are some other more concrete ideas:

1. Have students read about and research the results of close presidential elections in the U.S.  Be sure to check out which is an incredible website that has maps with the electoral results for all past presidential elections, and TONS of other cool stuff.

2. Recently, there have been some stories about pressure on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire. Get kids to consider the way that the principle of respresentative government influences the judicial branch.  Click here for an overview on this in the Huffington Post.  Ask students what this has to do with representative government?

3. As speculation is already beginning about the 2016 presidential election, you could have students do some research about how vice-presidential candidates are chosen. This article gives an excellent historic overview about the factors influencing this decision.

4. See my assignment for problems students can work on in class. Note that with the exception of the first question, they all have to do with the represenation in the executive branch.

5. And, if you're looking for a more elaborate project for students, see question #4 in my assignment above and idea #3 above.  I think it would be fun to put students in groups and have them role-play campaign managers--in an election year, they could research real candidates. But in off years, you could have them make up candidates, come up with a character sketch for an appropriate VP candidate, and then make decisions about where they will campaign, strategically.  You would have to remind students that it's not JUST the numbers on the electoral map that matter, but where the chances are realistic, i.e. even though California has the largest number of electoral votes, it might not be worth campaigning there if your running mate is a popular Californian who seems to have a huge lead there. Similarly, even though some of those smaller Western states have few, if you ignore them, you could be accused of not caring about those parts of the country. And small states also add up.

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