Thursday, October 30, 2008

Congress on the Net

Some Sites to Help You and Your Students

Just a couple of days until the historic election of 2008. Wow...I am pumped. I love election night. The excitement of an American Presidential election can not be beat. This the the World Series (how about those Phillies???), Super Bowl, and Stanley Cup all rolled into one. While we are all keeping a sharp eye on those early returns in the Presidential race, let's not lose focus on the critical Congressional races happening nationwide. This year's House and Senate races might just be more important than who ends up occupying that big house on Pennsylvania Avenue. Will America vote for a divided or unified government? Stay tuned :)

Last week, I shared one of my favorite multimedia lessons on Congress. Using the web, readings from the Woll Reader, and class discussions I let you in on my power ladder assignment. In that discussion, I shared several sites with you that are must visit sites. The first was which has tons of goodies to look at. In that blog, we focused on the power positions of House and Senate members. If you have time, take a peek at the entire site. It can be a very rich resource to develop lessons or find information.

I also sent you last week to and, the two official sites for these institutions. Last week we had the specific purpose of finding information and connecting to the individual members of Congress. These sites, however, are rich in many other ways. Try clicking on the Eductional Resources in the House site. I have found this useful as a bookmark to get easy access to documents I often use.

Another site that I find indespensible is Thomas ( This is the Library of Congress site. Again, as you browse you will find a vast number of invaluable resources and pages. If you click on For Teachers and then under Classroom activities you will see the "In Congress Assembled" lesson plans. I really like the concept of these activities which deal with Veteran affairs, the debt, and terrorism. You will find these in Lesson 3. is a site that you might want to remember to help you find stuff. I always tell my kids that if you need to access a particular part of the government but are having problems finding it, this is a great index. Another site that I look at from time to time is Their section on Congress has some pretty good ideas that I have borrowed when my own creative juices stop flowing. I am one who doesn't believe in reinventing the wheel everyday and as a teacher my motto has always been, "if it's a good lesson, steal it."

I am sure you are probably well aware of these sites and probably have more. For new teachers in government, these are the basics that you gotta know! Please drop me any comments and share some of your favorites. Until then...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Congressional Lesson Plan

Power Rankings in Congress

Are you getting close to being campaigned out? If you are like me, it is past time to be moving on in the curriculum, even as the 2008 election rages toward it's final moments. It is hard to pass up teaching points and newspaper articles that you want to share with the students...but the deadline to the AP Exam is calling. So much to teach and so little time to teach it in!! So lets look ahead to Congress for a bit.

This week I want to share what I call my "Power Ladder" assignment. If you have the (Peter) Woll Reader as part of your class it will make this assignment a bit easier; however, don't quit reading if you don't have this resource. The Internet will save you. If you don't use Woll, I highly recommend it for Advanced Placement students. The readings are challenging and you need to give guidance in using this book, but the opportunity for students to read the classic articles by top political scientists is priceless.

One of Woll's longtime readings is the classic Lawrence Dodds "Congress and the Quest for Power" (1977). I assign this for my classes to read. I tell them that while the article has several very important points, I especially want them to concentrate on the part of the article that Dodds calls the "power ladder". If you do not have the article available for the students or if you want to shorten this assignment, go to the hyperlinked Internet summary available for this article. Once the class has completed reading this, we have a discussion on the power ladder and Dodds' ideas to ensure that we are all on the same page.

Next, I ask my students to get in small groups and create for me an eleven by seventeen sized poster of a congressional power ladder that positions our state's Senators and Representatives on their respective rung. They are directed to and to locate information on committee assignments, important leadership roles, and other pertinent information on our state's delegation. Obviously, if you are in a large state you will want to select 3 or 4 of the Representative for them to research or allow the groups to make their own selections. Since our state has only four representatives, we do all of them giving us a total of six delegates to research.

This assignment does not take long if the groups divide their tasks and work as a team. I only give them two days to complete the job. Each group must then present their poster and justify why they placed the members of Congress on the power ladder as they did. We get great class discussion and it really brings the Dodds' article to life. In the mean time, the class becomes well acquainted with the state's Congressional members and their value to our state in Congress.

The last step to this assignment is what I call the reality check. I send the group to Congress. Org's power ranking page. Their job on this site is to see how the site defines power (and compare that to Dodds), look up the rankings of our delegation, and compare their evaluation and ranking to those on the site. The culmination to this project is an individual reflection paper on the assignment and what was learned.

I like the assignment for several reasons. First, it marries the printed page and the Internet. I believe this reinforces the idea that we want students to rely on multiple sources to find informtion. Second, it involves critical thinking and analysis. I find that too often in my AP class I expect students to absorb facts, but not really use them. I try to keep from falling into that trap. Finally, it is an opportunity for the students to work in a cooperative group and problem solve. Isn't that what government is supposed to be about?

Try the assignment and see if you like it. If you are teaching an on-line class this can become an individual assignment or it can be shortened and used on a "face" day. Let me know what you think. Until next time...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Polls and Polling In the 2008 Presidential Election

What Students Need to Know about the Bradley Effect, the Cell Phone Effect, and the Science of Polling

With two weeks before the 2008 election, it might be a good time to clue the students in on polling. Don't make the mistake of thinking that they understand the topic. As the major networks and most of the papers and weekly magazines concentrate on election outcome projections, it can become very confusing for the kids. Actually, at times, it becomes very confusing for most adults.

If you are using the Hippocampus curriculum, "Polls and Polling" is actually located in the Executive Branch Unit. This was originally done because in non-election years, the use of polls to gauge public opinion fits nicely with the policy development aspect of the White House. As a matter of fact, I have often used the PBS Frontline "The Clinton Years" video to develop the ideas of polling. (On this site is a transcript of the video in case you don't want to invest in the DVD.) The Chapter entitled "1995-1996 defeat/victory" sports a discussion with Dick Morris which is an excellent linkage tools for students to see how polls are used, or misused, by government. Morris, a Republican pollster and political analyst, joined Clinton's administration resulting in the condemning charge that President Clinton governed by poll.

Most of the college level textbooks also have adequate chapters or sections on the topic. The Edwards/Wattenberg/Lineberry Government in America, for example, has a solid discussion on polling in the chapter entitled "Public Opinion and Political Action". Go to the Hippocampus Advanced Placement Government site and click on Textbooks. You can find the page number for the topic in the NROC recommended books.

This being said, the question the students are throwing at me this year is, "What is the Bradley Effect?" They have heard the term in conjunction with news stories on the election polls, but don't understand the concept. In case you are fuzzy on this issue, the Bradley or Bradley-Wilder Effect is a reference to the 1982 California gubernatorial election. Tom Bradley, the black LA mayor had double digit leads in the polls which evaporated on election day. Bradley lost to George Duekmajian bringing about the idea that white voters will tell pollsters that they will vote for a black candidate, but will change their minds at the ballot box. Of course the application this election lies with Barack Obama's apparent lead with two weeks remaining. Does the Bradley Effect exist today? A good article to introduce the students to this concept is found on the NPR web site. You can either play the audio or print the transcript. I shared the audio with my students just the other day and it resulted in a very lively class discussion.

If the Bradley Effect still exists (and the above article argues it does not), it may be off-set by the Cell Phone Effect. This concept centers on the way polls are conducted; that is, through the use of land line phone numbers. The problem with this falls in the hundreds of thousands of young potential voters who are cell phone owners only. These voters being excluded from the polls could skew the reliability assuming of course that many of these youth are Obama supporters. A fairly new piece of research on this was done by the Pew Research Center. I copied part of this article and most of the graphics and had a lively discussion with this information also.

As if elections were not tricky enough to teach, technology is rearing its head and making the complicated much more complicated. At any rate, I strongly suggest taking a quick look at the polling process with the students and discussing these subjects. A polling question has not appeared on the Free Response section of the AP Government and Politics Exam for as long as I can remember. Who knows??? Until next time....

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Hot Ticket to Congressional Elections

Look out...I'm Using the "W" Word

I can't believe I am about to do this in public. I'm going to use the "W" word...not only use it, but recommend it. I am sending you to the Wikipedia page for Congressional Elections. I have always been suspicious of Wikipedia; or maybe I should say down right distrustful. But following a long, futile search to locate a site that pulled together all of this year's Congressional races, Wikipedia was the only one that did the job. Let me know if you can prove this wrong.

When you click on the above hyperlink and get to the Wikipedia site, drop down a few lines and you will see United States House Elections 2008 or United States Senate Elections 2008. Click on these and you will get a plethora of great stuff. First, go to the House Elections 2008. On the top of the article is a nice red/blue map of incumbents by Congressional districts. I found this very useful in class discussions. I asked the kids to compare the incumbents of our state to the way our state voted in the last four presidential elections (using the CNN election map discussed last week). This became a springboard for a class discussion on divided government, voting patterns of the electorate, and party loyalty or the lack thereof.

The next thing I did with this page was have the students look at the retiring incumbents. We already had a discussion on incumbent re-election efficiency and open election competition, so this information was combined for a good discussion speculating on the expected changes in the total House membership this year. That led to a discussion on how this could possibly help an Obama Presidency if he wins or hurt a McCain administration if he wins. I saw a lot of light bulbs turn on during this class discussion.

Next, a table is given with pundits rating selected House races. Following this is a brief look at each of these races. We looked at the pundit's predictions for our state. Again, it fostered a great discussion. We then looked at some of the key races in other states. I wrapped this up with a short writing exercise asking the students to make their own personal House predictions, justify these, and then discuss the ramifications of their predicted outcome. I did this with my classroom, but there is no reason that this could not become a bulletin board discussion with a subsequent writing assignment.

The Senate article is very similar. It has the red/blue map, a list of retiring Senators (all Republican), information on all of the Senate races, and predictions by the pundits. If your students are using the Sabato book, they will enjoy seeing their textbook author as one of the pundits. Since our state has a Senate race this year, we looked at it, the predictions, and compared this to the House races.

It is very easy in a Presidential Election year to overlook the Congressional races. In our state, we hardly see any information in the paper on this race and election television ads are just now starting to appear regularly. Our incumbent is fairly safe, but the class discussion on Senate versus House incumbent rate of re-election was interesting. I am using the video "The Candidate" right now, and so this site really helped to reinforce the teaching points we are focusing on (see my blog entry: AP Goes Hollywood, continued on 9-14-08) . The students are also marveling on how some things never change.

Enjoy the election season with the students. One more debate between the Presidential contenders is still coming up and the Congressional races are gaining full force. Its a fun time to be teaching government. Until next time...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Quick Hitter Election Lesson Plan

You Be the Campaign Manager

If you are working with the Hippocampus AP curriculum, you are probably finished with political parties and starting the election section. With the Presidential election winding down to the last thirty days, the excitement is building at the perfect time. Are we good or what?

Here is a suggestion for a real quick presidential election assignment that makes the kids go beyond the facts into analytical thinking. For this lesson, I am using the CNN Presidential Election Map. This map is a great tool. It shows the CNN poll predictions using dark blue for a solid Obama state, a light blue for a state leaning toward Obama, a light red for a state leaning toward McCain, and a dark red for a solid McCain state. Yellow is for the battle ground states. Click on each state and you get the prediction for the electoral votes. At the bottom of the pop up box, you can click on the history and see how the state has voted in the last four presidential elections.

Take a look at the assignment I give the students:
1. Pick a candidate and you become the Campaign Manager!
2. Assume you have $30 million dollars to spend in the last 30 days.
3. Decide (and list) the top 10 states your candidate will campaign in and explain why you selected those particular states (battle ground states "yellow", historically favors your candidate, demographics are fitting your candidates message, number of potential electoral votes, etc).
4. For each state you list, describe the demographic group you will "court" and the issue(s) you will focus on. (for example, in Florida, Obama might target the retired population with his Social Security/Medicare plan)
5. Decide how much you will allocate for your selected states, assuming you will spend all $30 million in just these 10 states.
6. Predict the outcome of the election in electoral votes assuming your strategy is successful in all cases.

It can be an individual assignment or a group project in a classroom. You could choose to make this a much more complex assignment. I keep it simple. Even so, it forces the students to incorporate previous knowledge from the political party unit as well as information in this unit on the elections. It combines current issues, demographics, polling, and the electoral college. If you have a classroom, this can become an interesting discussion with "campaigns" challenging each other on strategy and decision making. At any rate, it does bring the election alive in the classroom. After November 4th, the kids will love to compare the real world results with their work.

With two more presidential debates and plenty of issues to watch, it should be a very educational year in teaching parties and elections. Until next time...