Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Reality Check Now and Then Never Hurts

Thank You for Keeping It Real

I have a pet peeve I need to share: experts who are so far from working in the real world that their advise to us is at best suspect. You know those folks? The "do-as-I-say-but-have-never-attempted-in-the-real-world-myself" experts! The field of education is full of them and we are bombarded by their theories, practices, and jargon constantly. I am just egotistical enough to believe that unless THEY are in the trenches with you and me working with real time students that most of their rhetoric is just that.

OK, I had a rude awakening this week...yes, I have met the enemy and it is ME! Ouch!!!! Mind you dear readers, I am in the trenches with you. I teach what I preach and all ideas that I share have been time tested with real AP students in a Midwest urban school with a economically disadvantaged student rate of over 40% and a racial diverse student body.

However, I have some huge advantages over many of you. I am my own department chair and have developed a nice vertical team approach to AP in my department starting with freshmen AP Euro, a two year AP US History program, and a year long AP Government and Politics course. I have been fortunate to have administrators that understand the value of an AP curriculum and who have allowed me to make AP a departmental priority. Our school became an AVID school this year which means that the AP programs should be growing and we are well positioned to help all students be successful.

Here is the rub...this week a second year AP Government teacher in my area emailed and asked if I could help her with some critical curriculum decisions. This colleague has a huge problem. She is only given second semester (on an A-B block) to prepare her students for the AP Exam, which this year is on the first day of testing, May 4th. Her problem: what to jettison and what to teach.

Very politely this teacher (who has been a reader of this blog) let me know that for those of us living in an ideal AP world, my ideas are great...for those trapped in a different reality however, I was full of...well..."theories, practices and jargon". Ouch again!!!

The two of us did sit down for several hours one afternoon this week and looking at Hippocampus, Lineberry, and the Woll reader and married her limited calendar to the vastness of the AP Government and Politics curriculum. We had to become minimalists to say the least, cutting and slashing the curriculum, lesson plans, and readings to what can only be called bare bones AP Government. Keeping in mind also that the new College Board audit system calls for maintaining a tight syllabus that is comprehensive we had quite a daunting task.

We have a little more work to do, but by the end of our initial meeting we felt very positive about the course she would be teaching and the expectations for success for her students. And of course for me this experience was a great reality check. When I renew this blog for second semester I pledge to "keep it real" for those of you that face time limits and other real world of public eduction issues.

Thank you for all the work you do to be the best teachers in the country. We hope this blog has been of some benefit to you this year. After New Year's and a full platter of bowl games I will continue where we left off with the Bureaucracy.

I hope you and your families have the most wonderful holiday season. Enjoy your well earned rest. Until then...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Budget

Try Not Scaring the Kids to Death

I always tell myself when I start the unit on the budget and the national debt not to scar the heck out of the kids. I traditionally begin this unit by first looking at the national debt clock. When the students see that they will be obligated to pay somewhere in the vicinity of $35,000 to just pay off the current debt, I sort of lose the "don't spread the fear" battle. This is some pretty scary stuff after all. Can you believe that the Times Square Debt Clock maxed out this October going over $10 TRILLION DOLLARS??? Wow....

By now, most of the students should be aware that President-elect Obama has his job cut out over the next four years trying to stimulate the economy out of the recession, while not increasing the national debt to a point that it is unmanageable for the foreseeable future. If they have been following the news, they should have some awareness of the immensity of the task. Here is an activity I have used to help the students further realize how difficult and how controversial this job has been in the past and will be in the future.

First, I use the Federal Spending Pie Graph provided in the Hippocampus unit. As a class, we will look at the chart and discuss the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending. We will then look at all eight of the categories this chart represents. When you point to each section of the pie graph, a brief description of that section pops up. We discuss each section, making sure the kids have a pretty good understanding of the sectors of the federal spending that are being represented on the graph. I try to answer any and all questions at that time to give them a basic understanding of the national expenditures.

I then divide the class into eight groups and assign each group to one of the sections. With this done I pose a problem for the class to solve. I tell them the national budget is $1 million dollars. However, this year we must slash $100,000 from the budget due to lost revenue. The class must then decide which of the sections must be sacrificed with an understanding that there must be a unanimous class vote on solution. The trick is that each group is also told that they will lose class points if it is their section that is cut. Let the debate begin.

As can be predicted, across the board cuts are suggested, but the mandatory groups point out that this is politically almost impossible. The military sector can't imagine losing funds during a time of war and the non-military discretionary is panicky thinking about cuts to education just as they are about to enter college (and seek federal aid!). Printing money is the first out-of-the-box solution (good time to discuss inflation) and borrowing is widely suggest (but one flash back to the debt clock is all that is needed). No group wants to bite the bullet, but I keep insisting that the cuts must be made!

I can't remember a year since the end of national surpluses that the classes were able to really solve this problem . Usually one group (non-military discretionary) gives in and allows cuts in their section on things like highways and transportation, mainly due to class pressure and with my guarantee that points will not be deducted from their grade. As an opening activity to the Budget Unit, I pretty much have the students hooked. What could potentially be boring becomes salient and relevant.

Many of you might have much better budget games, but this is a quick and easy way to demonstrate the dilemmas that Congress and the President face with a national budget and a recession. Give it a try as an opening activity and then get into the facts and details of the process and problems of budgetary politics. And remember, try not to scare them too badly! Until then...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More on the Presidency

Looking at the Presidential Approval Ratings

When I teach the unit on the Executive Branch I like to bring the unit to a conclusion with two points. First, I show (or have the students view on their own) the HBO video Truman which was based on the David McCullough book by the same title. (See previous blog on using this video in class and related sites on the internet.) My purpose here is twofold; I believe this movie more than any other shows the humanity of the men who serve. Truman was a flawed man with ambitions and conceits identical to you and I. Yet Truman put aside his own personal motivations in order to make the best possible decisions for the nation at a very critical time in history. This leads to wonderful discussions on the Man vs. The Job.

My second purpose is that at the very end of the video we see Truman leaving office and going to the D.C. train station where a crowd of admirers surround him in a farewell tribute. As the scene plays out, the actress playing Margaret Truman reads a voice-over saying that when Truman left office his approval ratings were very low. I use this as a jump off point to go into a discussion on approval ratings and the President.

On the topic of approval ratings, I would like to direct you to a couple of web sites and one article that can be used for teaching and discussing this topic. The first of these is Wikipedia...yes I used the "W" word again. If you can't beat them, join them! The Wikipedia site on Presidential Approval Ratings has all of the approval rating graphs from FDR through our current president. As a class, we look at each one of these graphs and discuss for each president why there are peaks and why there are ebbs in the graph based on historical events.

For example, with the current president we discuss relatively low rates at the onset of the first term (result of a very tight and strange 2000 election), the spike following 9-11, the spike after the apparent success of the Iraq engagement, and then the slow decline as the war dragged on and the economy tanked. The students really get into these discussions...they are excellent ways to bring in the recent history and the politics of public perceptions. I start with FDR and move on. The final question for the students is: "What will the new President's chart look like?" This question forces the students to look at the issues facing Mr. Obama and what will happen to his chart if policies fail or succeed.

The second option for you is the Roper Center for Public Opinion Archive. If you are squeamish about Wikipedia, this site has not only the graphs, but also the data points for FDR through GWB. You can do the above lesson with this site equally as well.

The last place I would like to direct you is an excellent article about the graphs and approval rating titled "Presidential Approval in Perspective". I don't have the students read this, but it is an essential reading for the teacher to have under the belt when doing the above activity. In short, the article discusses how the approval graphs can be misleading and what needs to be done to correct false impressions that presenting data graphically can lead to. I like to summarize the concepts of Dr. Franklin's article and then ask the students questions to see if they get his message of using caution in making comparisons of graphic representations of data.

OK...some pretty heady stuff here, but the students respond positively to it and it does fulfill the College Board's desire for us to teach more about data, charts and graphs, and using these tools. Keep in mind that in the past graphs have been the basis for Free Response Questions. Building graph reading into our lessons is critical. Don't always assume that the students have these skill...they don't!!!!!!!

Next week I will move on and discuss some things I like to look at with the Budget Unit. Until then...