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blog, the hot story flashing on the net is that Bill Richardson, who had been tapped for Secretary of Commerce, has withdrawn his name citing a federal investigation into business "concerns" during his governorship.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...

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