Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some Help Teaching the "Underpinnings"

We the People Competitions...Another Weapon in Our Arsenals

I find AP teachers to be an interesting group of people. I doubt there exists another set of educators who are so dedicated to finding new ways of presenting material, new ways of exciting students to their topics, and new ways of insuring that come May, their students will be totally prepared for the summative exams that face them. I think that most of use who teach AP classes take the whole thing very personally. When our students succeed, we feel we succeed. When the students fail...well...we tend to blame ourselves. Is this striking a cord with you?

In the quest to be a better APGOPO teacher, I always keep the radar working for new and interesting ways to get students involved. I have shared several of these with you and today I want to focus on another: The Center for Civic Education's We the People Competitions. For us "old timers" this is not a new resource. However, if you are new to teaching APGOPO, this can be a great find in your search for ways of involving students in the learning process.

The Center for Civic Educations stated goal is "... to promote civic competence and responsibility among the nation’s elementary and secondary students...". This is accomplished by providing an educational program with very good publications available and a culminating activity in which students participate in simulated Congressional hearings.

If you are not familiar with the We the People book for high schools you should be. This book is very helpful in teaching the concepts that APGOPO expects the students to understand as far as the Underpinnings of the United States Government are concerned. In my social studies department, we have used this text in our sophomore honors US History, our AP US History, and in our regular and AP Government classes. Classroom sets are available for affordable prices for most public and private schools. Since I have encouraged most of my teachers to attend trainings put on by the Center for Civic Education we have even received classroom sets at no cost!

This week (February 1st as a matter of fact) is the Kansas State Competition in Topeka. Our school will field a team this year under the leadership of my AP History teacher and myself. Winning your state level competition allows your team to advance to nationals in Washington, D.C. Several years ago our school won this honor and the students were of course elated.

Now, having said all of this, there are a couple of caveats that must be looked at. First, the curriculum of We the People: The Citizens and the Constitution covers primarily the Underpinnings of the United States and the Civil Liberties portions of the AP Curriculum (see the table of contents for this publication). These two sections of the AP curriculum make up at the most 30% of the APGOPO exam and at the least 10% (see the Curriculum Outline in the Acorn Book page 10-12).

If you are going to attempt to incorporate the We the People publication and curriculum in your syllabus, you are going to have to carefully watch your time. I have always been a strong advocate of spending the bulk of my teaching time on the Institutions of National Government and Public Policy which can make up as much as 60% of the exam! The We the People curriculum can be a real time consumer if you don't watch out. I would never advocate sacrificing any of our precious time needed for the most significant parts of the AP curriculum for "outside" activities.

If you are like me and have the luxury of a year long class, then We the People can be inserted into your syllabus comfortably. If you teach online or for a semester only, you really need to weight the cost of time versus percentage of curriculum being covered.

A second concern with We the People is cost....especially in these hard times for public education. Beyond the cost of the materials if you must purchase them, transportation and other travel concerns might be problematic for you. Our team (totaling 15 students and sponsors) will need to travel 160 miles for the state competition. If you win state, fund raising will be necessary for the national competition. Be sure if you start on this venture you have the support of your administration, parents, and students.

An alternative to competing in the state competition is that several states have district level competitions that your team could probably compete in with little or no cost other than time. At our school we have even done a school only competition which was unofficial, but cost nothing while allowing the students to present their papers and demonstrate their understanding of the Constitution to local judges. (see the rules of competition)

If you have questions contact your local state representative. It is probably too late this year to get on board with a team, but planning for next year should start soon!

Wish my team good luck. The kids have worked very hard and are very enthusiastic. I can only see this as a great help in the final goal...understanding our government and doing well on the AP Exam!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A New Year and a Look at the Budget

Ripped from the Headlines

Last year I wrote you a blog on teaching the federal budget and budgetary process (see Dec. 14, 2008), and gave you a short class project that you could use with the students to promote the idea of cutting budgets and balancing budgets. It was a nice little project and I still like to use it with my students.

I need to be totally honest with you and say that this year I really don't have anything new to share with you on this topic, however, I do feel a sense of urgency in having you make sure that your students are really aware of these topics and issues.

It has been several years since we have had a pure budget question appear on the AP Exam. A budget question of sorts appeared in 2002 concerning distribution of federal funds. That question demanded that students have knowledge of the important issues of entitlement payments.

The last real pure budget question dates back to 1999 in which pie charts similar to the one above were used demanding interpretation for students to answer the questions. The question tested to see if the students understood the "barriers" to new policy initiatives. Frankly, it was a tough question. Students had to not only understand the categories of spending but also "walls" in congress that kept spending concerns from manifesting into actual policy decisions. Have you taught that yet this year???

Now, I sure don't have an "in" with College Board or the test writing committees, but any AP teacher who has been in the business for a number of years knows to start anticipating questions from certain topics. Especially when we haven't seen a question from that topic in a number of years we should get a bit nervous about an upcoming appearance. When that topic is front page and "above the fold" on a daily basis in papers all across the nation we better be on the ball and reviewing possible questions with our students. I am not one who likes to play the "guess the question" game, but this year I just have that feeling!

The budget problems we are seeing now in the country are not just federal. States have entered into a serious and contentious set of budget problems. With a recession still affecting many parts of the nation, states as well as the federal government are contending with taxpayer cries of "no new taxes" while the government bodies are experiencing dwindling revenues and increased expenditures. Most states have balanced budgets provisions in their constitutions, leaving a dilemma of daunting proportion.

The AP exams seem to love to hit on timely current event questions that are ripped from the headlines of the daily news. This year, I am spending a couple of extra days on the budget and will surely give it more time in my pre-test review sessions. I just have that feeling!!!

I still like to share the National Debt Clock with the students and we took a look at the Cost of War site. My students this year, like all years, were dumbfounded with the gargantuan numbers and the rapidly ticking off of dollars. One student this asked, "can we even print the money that fast?" Good question...I had never thought of it that way.

The President's budget will be coming out in the next couple of for the headlines and analysis and spend some extra time with the topic...I don't think you will be sorry.