Sunday, November 8, 2009

Teaching the House of Representatives

A Daunting Task Involving Much More Than a List of Terms

This week I will begin to start the teaching of the institutions of our national government to my AP class. This is always a daunting task knowing that a large percentage of the AP Exam will be centered on these institutions. The multiple choice questions don't worry me so much. Based on released exams from the past, many of the questions on the multiple choice section dealing with the institutions of government seem to be definition in nature...that is to say, if the kids know what a sub-committee is, they will be able to figure out the answer to the question. This isn't true of the Free Response portion of the exam, however.

If you look at the questions on the Free Response portion of the AP Exam, these often involve so much more than just knowing the vocabulary. The folks at AP don't expect the kids just to understand the structure of the House or Senate, or the roles of the Congressmen in committees, or the influence of interest groups in the legislative process. The questions posed to the students will often involve the juxtaposition of their understanding of Congress with one of the other branches of government.

This means that our job in preparing the students for the exam (and indeed for a life long understanding of the government) involves making sure that they understand the links between the House and Senate and the White House, the Federal Bureaucracy, and the Courts. This means that topics such as Committee and Sub-Committee interaction with the White House staff and Executive Offices need to be discussed. It means that the Iron Triangle needs to be thoroughly understood. And it also means that the tailoring of legislation to withstand judicial scrutiny must be become a topic of inquiry. These and many, many topics need to be touched upon.

It has taken me the better part of 40 years to get a good handle on Congress and its interaction. I don't find it surprising that they say it takes a freshman Representative his/her entire first term just to understand their jobs. And yet, we are pushing our students to get a solid insight on this complex issue in just the two or three weeks we have to dedicate to the topic. Daunting!!!

I do not believe that the textbooks or even Hippocampus can fully do the job of making the connections for the kids. That is why I believe the most important thing we can do for them is to get them following the news and really getting connected with all stories dealing with Congress. Right now we have the Health Care bills that are getting great press. The news stories in the weekly magazines and the newspapers are a tremendous source of real world examples of the inner workings of Congress. As the press is following Committee hearings, interest groups both pro and con on health reform, and the debates within the chambers of the House and Senate we can find many real world examples to help the students really get a grasp on the complexity of our legislative process. At the moment in history, the controversy of health care reform has given the congressional process a transparency seldom afforded. Take advantage of this wonderful teaching tool and bring the real world into your lesson plans.

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