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...

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