Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Judiciary and the Court

Part One of Four

Wow...what an historic week! Since my last message to you, a new president has been sworn in, twice, and has claimed his seat in the Oval Office. His first week was busy with the affairs of state including issuing important Executive Orders, talking with foreign heads of state, and watching the confirmation of his Cabinet by the Senate. Wow!!! As government teachers we have to be loving it. But as the first 100 Days grind on and the pundits begin the critiques, we must move on in the curriculum and make sure we are getting our job done and preparing the kids for the AP Exam in May.

Speaking of which, I was selected to be an AP Exam Reader again this year after a one year hiatus. I will be heading to Daytona Beach on June 1, ready and eager to rate YOUR STUDENT'S essay. If you have applied as a reader and have accepted the position, be sure to look me up in Daytona...after 5:00 pm I'll be on the beach earning my well deserved rest for the day.

I am planning this year to do a daily log blog from the Daytona grading site, letting all of you in on the process of rating the Exam, interviews with the rating leaders and ETS, and the latest information from College Board and ETS. More on this later.

This week I would like to introduce the topic for the next four weeks; the Federal Court system, the judiciary, and the Supreme Court. Looking back over the last number of years, several of the Free Response questions have been generated from this area including: 2001 question #3, 2002 question #2, 2005 questions #1 and #3, and 2007 question #2. Betting against having a Court question isn't a wise decision...we always should be prepared on this subject. So, for the next few weeks I would like to walk you through a few areas that I especially like to look at and review the students on. These will include the Justices of the Supreme Court, important cases the Court has decided over the last 220 years, the concept of Judicial Review including the concepts of Activism vs. Restraint and Constructionism.

One point I like to make with students is the demystification of the Court. No other branch of the government works in such secrecy and literally behind closed doors as does the Court. Those nine wise people make fateful decisions in a manner most Americans are ignorant of. One way to "expose" the Court is through video, and my favorite on this subject is "Gideon's Trumpet". I discussed this film in a previous blog (see the hyperlink). This movie can have two big teaching objectives. First, it can teach the ins and outs of the Gideon case (a favorite of the AP Exam); and second, it can teach the ins and outs of how the Court functions. For a couple of hours investment in time you get a big bang for your "bucks".

Of course there are a ton of great books on the Court. A new one I asked for and Santa was nice enough to deliver was The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. I have just started on this book, but it promises to be an excellent source of information on the "Bush" Court including Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. I like the short chapters in this book that are great for student readings in or out of class. The hyperlink on this book takes you to an NPR site with reviews, an interview with Toobin you can listen to, and an excerpt from the is worth taking a few minutes on. Other good selections are Bob Woodward's The Brethren, and the classic Lawrence Baum's The Supreme Court, now in it's Ninth Edition. Most of these are way to much for the students to tackle in a semester along with everything else we must demand of them, but these are great background books for teachers and can be used selectively for short readings.

Next week I will give you a short discussion on the Justices of the current Court and do a little speculating on changes we might see during the Obama administration. I hope you continue to enjoy watching the Obama administration form and make decisions that will change the future course of American History. What a great time to be in our trade :) ! Until then...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The 100 Days...

What Do They Mean?

This Tuesday is an historic day that few Americans will forget. The nation has elected the first African American as President; a benchmark that can only help to forge unity in a nation marked by factions. Inauguration Day will be eventful with "the speech", the balls, parades, and the gathering of who's who in America. It is an event I hope your students are encouraged to view and savor. It is history, and one of America's finest moments. The busy schedule for the next couple of days will keep most of us with one eye on the Internet and television.

For our troubled nation, however, the really important days are the next 100 which will follow Tuesday's pomp and ceremony. Since the fabled First 100 Days of Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the first three months of every president's administration becomes a measuring stick by which much of the next four years is to be judged. This year I believe that the first 100 days is more important than any in recent history. The economy, the war in Iraq, the crisis in Gaza, Iran, China, and the list of issues, problems, and confrontations facing Mr. Obama is endless. All of which offers AP Government and Politics teachers a plethora of teaching moments.

Here are a list of issues facing the nation that I will focus my classes on during the remainder of this semester of school. Using current events discussions, news readings, and class discussions, I will want to make sure the students are aware of the ramifications of these points:
  1. The economic stimulation package and its effect on the budget and debt
  2. The early days of the White House (watching for organization and management style)
  3. The handling of Iraq and Afghanistan and the role of Commander and Chief
  4. The confirmation of the Cabinet and other vital appointments
  5. Approval Ratings (it might be fun to graph them on a chart in the room)
  6. Interaction with Congress (especially the House leadership) in vital economic legislation packages
  7. Interaction with the Bureaucracy (and the Cabinet of "rivals")
  8. The Media and the President...their relationship and how Mr. Obama deals with press issues
These topic will offer the student great discussion points on possible AP Free Response Questions and give the kids a better understanding of the government in general. I am sure your classes are excited (as mine are) with the changing of the guard. Mr. Obama has ignited a new generation of youth who may prove to be more active and participatory than any previous generation. What a fantastic age to be an AP Government teacher!!! Until next time...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More on the Bureaucracy

The Regulatory Agencies...the Heart of Your AP Government Unit

Last week I discussed the need for teaching the Federal Bureaucracy as an AP teacher. I fear that this unit is often overlooked or skipped entirely. In 2006, the responses to the Free Response Question on the bureaucracy demonstrated a need for more thorough coverage of the topic of bureaucracy nationwide. The problem with the bureaucracy is that it just isn't very glamorous. In fact, it can be a bit boring (understatement) for the students unless we help put a little life in it.

Last week, I focused mostly on the Cabinet; and indeed, the newspapers this week were full of articles about Mr. Obama's selections for Secretaries and the Attorney General post. By all means, we must put a very high focus on these top governmental positions and how they relate to Congress and to the public.

This can also be a great time to introduce the "iron triangle" (remember that famous Free Response Question from the mid-1990s on the iron triangle) and take a look at sub-governments and the relationship that exists between the bureaucracy and Congressional standing committees and clients. I like to read some excerpts to the students from Dan Briody's 2003 book to get them the message on this topic.

This week, however, I want to call your attention to the aspect of the bureaucracy that has most recently caught the attention of the College Board test committees: the regulatory agencies. (Lesson 26 in US Government and Politics at Most of the top textbooks do a pretty good job of handling this topic including a short history of the beginning of the regulatory agencies in the Progressive Era and the proliferation of these agencies in the New Deal and post War years. The books also get into the topic of deregulation during the Reagan years and that continuing trend which persists today.

I like to try to focus the students on a few of the major regulatory agencies. Again, as I do with the Cabinet positions, I use a shotgun method breaking students into groups to study the agencies and then reporting out to the class their findings. The agencies I focus on are: SEC, NLRB, EPA, FTC, FCC, and FDA. (I have linked the home page for each of these for the Cabinet Departments, the Federal Agencies have a great deal of transparency and students can look to these sites for most information they will want or need.) The 2006 question included two of these, and my students were very comfortable answering the question. The Federal Reserve was the other agency from that year, but I cover that under public policy and economic and don't include it with the pure regulatory agencies.

It really isn't hard to hook the students on the regulatory agencies. The FDA is familiar to most students from their US History, but a short reading from The Jungle will help them understand the need for this agency. The FCC was involved in the famous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl XXXVIII issuing a huge fine and being caught in an interesting Court battle (US Court of Appeals, Third Circuit CBS v. FCC 06-3575 [2008]). The NLRB has been active in union negotiations in our city and news clippings are not hard to find on the EPA. A little creativity and student interest really gets peaked. I also do a current events element in my class (students must find and review two articles for group sharing weekly) and during the unit I challenge them to find articles on these agencies...they always can.

On another note, the inauguration is just around the week I will put some ideas out for looking at the historic day, THE SPEECH, and how to incorporate it into your curriculum. Until then...

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The New Year...

And What A Year It Will Be

Welcome back readers, and a Happy New Year to you. Now that we have all had a well deserved period of R&R, it is time to get back into the swing of things...and oh, how things will be swinging shortly. The nation is preparing for an historic inauguration, while President-elect Obama has been very busy working on lining up his cabinet. As I write this blog, the hot story flashing on the net is that Bill Richardson, who had been tapped for Secretary of Commerce, has withdrawn his name citing a federal investigation into business "concerns" during his governorship. Let the drama begin.

I will be beginning this semester with the Hippocampus Bureaucracy Unit, which is great timing. Immediately following January 20th, the Senate will begin considering the confirmation of the cabinet. The news will be full of Senate hearing stories, profiles of the nominees, and the so called "team of rivals" that Mr. Obama has selected to fill the top positions in our federal bureaucracy.

In the years that I have worked with students in AP Government and Politics, I have found that one of the hardest units for them to really get a grip on is the unit discussing the federal bureaucracy. It seems that the working branch of our federal government is ominous, confusing, and quite difficult for them to get their minds around. In 2006, the AP Exam's Free Response section of the test had a bureaucracy question. I was not a reader on that particular question that year, but I did talk with many of the readers for the question. Those folks reported to me that the question was a tough one for the kids to answer and that many of the responses demonstrated that the bureaucracy had remained a mystery to the students. Why is this?

I think one of the best places to start on the bureaucracy is the official White House site under the heading of the Cabinet. Once you are in the site and in the Cabinet section, clicking on the name of the Department will send you to the Department's official site. It is very handy and very easy to use.

I like to make a class project based on this site. I divide the class into five or six groups and have each group research one of the major departments. I always use State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice and since we are in an agricultural state Agriculture and Transportation (we make a bunch of airplanes in our state as well). I have the students find out exactly what each Department does, how it is structured, and current issues the department is facing. I also ask the students to scan the newspapers and on-line news to find articles to share concerning their Department. We use the jig-saw technique and have the students do the teaching.

I don't overly structure this assignment, rather I let the students find information they believe is important. The results are usually amazingly good and in the end, the class has a good feel for the cabinet. The federal government, thanks to the internet, is very transparent and easy to access. I am amazed sometime with how much information the students are able to access with little or no problem. Most often they come to me with questions on how to get their information cut down...not on how to find more!

Of course, the cabinet is only a part of federal bureaucracy. Next week I will discuss a little about the agencies, corporations, administrations, and other bureaucratic branches...especially the regulatory agencies which are of a particular interest to College Board and their question writing teams. Until then...