Sunday, September 27, 2009

Teaching Federalism

A Tough Topic in both the Classroom and American Political Life
Every year as I begin to think about teaching the concept of federalism I cringe. Do you? This is just a tough topic to get the point through to the students. I can't think of any topic in American history or American current events that has had a greater impact. Yet the concept of federalism is just hard to get across. Later in the year as we start to look at important Court cases, federalism creeps into many of them. Obviously Brown v. BOE was central to the federalism problem...can the Court order states to desegregate schools? Wasn't education a state power neither given to the national government nor denied to the states. Yet the Fourteenth Amendment clearly forbade the states from denying the civil rights of its people. Again, in the Gideon v. Wainwright case Florida's case was simply that it did not have to appoint lawyers in non-capital cases. It came down to the issue of federalism in the end.

In the newspapers today we see federalism challenged by states that wish to ignore the full faith and credit clause in the case of gay marriage. And last week in Kentucky a federal census worker was brutally murdered and "fed" inked on his body. There seems to be a renewed call to state's rights in every corner of the nation. So in short, federalism matters. This isn't an irrelevant issue of philosophy to be bantered about. This is a topic the students need to understand and understand well. But how do we do that?

This year I am taking a strong vocabulary approach to the subject. Hippocampus and my textbook do a good job covering the topic, so I am hammering on the vocabulary of the topic and making sure that the understanding is not superficial. To that end, here is the list of words I have generated to focus on during class time. I started this exercise by having the kids list on the board every term they could think of that had to do with federalism. I then linked those terms together and helped them clarify their definitions.

  • Supremacy Clause
  • Elastic Clause
  • implied powers
  • enumerated powers
  • shared powers
  • concurrent powers
  • delegated powers
  • Commerce Clause
  • 10th Amendment
  • 14th Amendment
  • full faith and credit clause
  • privileges and immunities clause
  • dual federalism
  • layer cake federalism
  • Federalist Papers #16, 17
  • cooperative federalism
  • fiscal federalism
  • marble cake federalism
  • carrot and stick policies
  • grants in aid
  • block grants
  • categorical grants
  • revenue sharing
  • formula grants
  • mandates
  • unfunded mandates
  • nullification
  • McCulloch v. Maryland
  • Gibbons v. Ogden

What makes the teaching of federalism so difficult is that all of these terms are quite vital. The above list is not just a scattered group of sort of connected thoughts...they are are totally relevant to understanding the concept. I really believe that if the list is not mastered by the students, then they will be missing huge chunks of the concept in their minds.

The trick is to drill these terms and concepts into the students without totally losing them in the process. In today's world, not an easy job. Yet I am convinced that it is the job at hand.

I may have missed something on the list, I did it from my memory which at my age is a dangerous thing to do. Let me know if I need to add something. In the mean time, start hammering away at these. It seems to me it has been a while since we have had a pure federalism question in the free response section of the AP this the year????

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Blog Number 1 for the New School Year

Welcome Back To the HippoCampus Blog

A hearty hello to all of the faithful readers from last year and any new members of the HippoCampus Teacher Blog. I am excited to be back in the saddle and shooting out ideas, lesson plans, and topics for you to consider and use in your classroom. As a veteran AP Government and Politics teacher, an experience AP Grader, and a life long learner, my intention again is to share ideas that you are welcome to adapt to your teaching situation. I also encourage you to utilize the comment section of this blog and add any ideas of your own to the discussion. I never pretend to have all the answers and I look forward to learning from your ideas over the course of the year as I share mine.

This year the blog is scheduled to be updated bi-weekly, but I may slip in some ideas and comments between the scheduled posting dates. So stay tuned!! I also encourage new readers to check out topics that are archived from last year's blog. While I may make some references to ideas given out last year, I am going to make every attempt not to simply repeat those past thoughts. The archive has some great ideas in it you may want to view and use.

That being said, I want to venture into this week's topic...reading the Constitution. As you follow the HippoCampus curriculum we start the year with a good discussion on the underpinnings of our government's traditions. This, I believe, is essential background information for the students to acquire so that once they begin examining the major documents of our government they can have a reasonable understanding (and hopefully discussion) on the original intent of the Framers and the ramifications of that intent today. Without some cursory knowledge of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Paine the students will simply not get the work of Jefferson, Madison, and the cast of characters present in the convention of 1787.

This said, I believe we can move through the Underpinnings fairly rapidly until we reach the Constitution, at which point we need to apply the brakes. A few years ago I read a survey by a major US newspaper (and I admit I don't have this with me right now so please trust my memory) but when asked how many people had actually read the Constitution the number was shockingly low. If memory serves, the percentage was quite a ways below twenty percent. When further questioned, most of those surveyed actually did not know the difference between the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.

With our AP students we can not let this happen. I strongly suggest that if you are not having the students do a thorough reading of the Constitution you amend your lesson plans (excuse the pun). I like to take an Article by Article look at the document by breaking the class into groups and using the Jigsaw method. The students are not only asked to report back what the document says, but what was their interpretation of the original intent of the individual clauses they read, keeping always in mind the historical content. Thus when the students are reporting their sections to the class, I attempt to draw out the intention and ramification of the sections.

For example, when in Article 1 the students tell me that the House members serve for a two year period and I will ask why two years? Depending on their response I will ask whom did the Framers assume would be the Representatives. In 1787 would it have been reasonable to assume a Representative would run more than once? Was it possible then for the House to see a 100% turnover in an election? Was that a good or bad thing? Is a two year term reasonable in the 21st century? What has changed?

I had some very stimulating, thought provoking conversations come from this type of in depth examination of the document. But here is the takes time and time is not always available. You need to pick and choice your topics to discuss very carefully and be sure to not squander too much time on interesting subjects that fall off of the AP radar. This is the tough part. I also want to add that I spend most of my time on Article 1 and Article 2 and then move much more quickly through the remainder of the Constitution. Section 8 and Section 9 get a great deal of attention during the time with Article 1.

The bottom line is simple...however you do it, make the kids read the Constitution with a careful eye to the details and intent. This will make the rest of your year so much smoother and so much easier when you are all speaking the same language in class and have a common starting point.

In two weeks I intend on discussing Federalism. This is a tough topic for the kids and is often a tripping point on the AP Exam. Until then, have a great start to the school year....RV