MEAP-free in Government Class 

Government is taught to seniors. Seniors do not have to take the MEAP (Michigan Education Assessment Program). Therefore, I do not have to teach to "the test." I am a Government teacher and I have freedoms that unfortunately, many of my MEAP-dictated colleagues do not. I have had the opportunity to spend weeks at a time covering one subject in great depth. I have also had the pleasure of taking a break from my planned lessons to talk about current events and I have used creative strategies that have required the use of the textbook for only two units. Staying away from the textbook was encouraged in college, but now I am not sure how that is done while teaching to a dictated schedule and a test. 

Government is a one-semester class in my district and this semester, I will cover eight topics. I have therefore had the pleasure of spending long periods of time on very specific ideas. For example, we spent three weeks discussing the First Amendment. We have spent three weeks on passing bills through Congress and will spend five or six on civil rights. Each of those topics is vital to understanding the United States Government and according to my curriculum guide, all three should fit into a few weeks. Because of the flexibility with time that I have been given, I am able to go deeper into ideas, cover them from more than one angle and avoid the textbook. I have also had the pleasure of extending the time for certain activities as the students and I need it. We have covered a lot so far; at least I think it is a lot. The people who write curriculum guides one inch thick and twenty miles wide may not agree, but I am ok with that. My students also seem to agree and that is whom I am there for. When the seniors walked into second-semester Government knowing that they need it to graduate and thinking that Government is boring, they did not hesitate to inform me of their lack of interest and negative attitude. Three months later however, I still have students from last semester visiting me to tell me they miss my class and I have current students tell me that Government is a lot more fun than they expected. I have not taken a formal poll or anything, but something tells me that students do not have that reaction when they are taught to a test. 

Since September, a lot of important events have taken place on this planet. Unfortunately, most young people do not know about them, have little information about them or even worse, they have false information. Because I have not been held to a time frame -- I do not have to have certain topics covered by testing week -- I have taken entire class periods to inform students and discuss with them what is going on around them. It would be ideal if children and young adults were hooked on current events, but speaking from my own perspective in high school, I know most of them are not. Personally, when I was 18, I enjoyed learning about current events, but never took the time to look into the news on my own. In fact, many adults are uninformed about what happens outside of their homes, so it is no surprise that their offspring are equally as uninformed. Anyway, back to my point here, it has been invaluable to my students as well as myself to take the time and just chat. Not only do they crave information once I start giving it, but they crave an opportunity to share what they know. Those who are informed love to tell what they know about the weapons used in Serbia, the sad quotes they heard from Colorado or the conditions they experienced when they went to school in the city that has recently been taken over by an appointed School Board. It makes them proud and helps fill in the gaps I leave unanswered. In addition to taking the time to share facts from the news, teenagers also love the chance to express their opinions about it. For example, most of the students were unaware ofthe Detroit Public School takeover and that is occurring very close to the district where I teach. Many were very angry about the takeover. They felt it was a violation of the people's right to take part in their own government and community. Some students went to school in Detroit and had personal stories to tell. Some thought that maybe a takeover was a pretty good idea. I told them my perspective on the whole issue and allowed them to voice theirs. Thank goodness I was not planning on covering a core democratic value that day, because I may not have been able to skip it for an unplanned discussion. 

One additional benefit of freedom in the classroom, is nontraditional assessment (a.k.a.: avoiding tests). I have given two objective tests this semester and both related to text units. Textdriven units resulted in a text driven tests and I have to admit, giving those tests were not my proudest moments. Much of what the students have enjoyed and learned the most from have been creative forms of assessment. We made timelines and wrote essays for our history unit. To learn about the scientific polling process, we created, conducted and reported on a public opinion poll. The students went around to every classroom in the school, explained the First Amendment, distributed and collected polls on censorship of music. Then, we tallied up the information, analyzed it and wrote a series of articles for the school paper. That took a lot of time and to meet deadlines, it took time I did not plan on dedicating to the project until later. Luckily, I had some flexibility with my schedule. Our class spent three weeks picking at the First Amendment and the restrictions society has placed on those rights. They created dress codes and role-played the Board of Education, trying to get the codes approved to demonstrate that what you wear is a form of speech and dress codes infringe on that right. Then, we had to figure out why we have dress codes if we have the First Amendment to protect us? Now that was fun! Then, I gave them a test which asked them to tell me what they learned about the First Amendment. Three weeks on one topic - I am so lucky. We are going to read a novel next week that would probably not be on any standardized tests. We are spending three weeks playing Congress: writing bills, writing and giving speeches, debating on Committees and as the Floor. I think I can tell by watching the intensity on their face when they give a speech against abortion that are learning about government. I can also sense the author's anger when his bill gets voted down because the people voting do not like him. Does that tell them anything about how government works? We are living through the crony system when they vote for their friend's bills. They get frustrated when they are not allowed to further explain a bill once it is written - it is written how it is written and must be accepted at face value. They cannot see why other people vote against assisted suicide when they are the ones who suffered along side a dying loved one. Neat stuff-- not on the test. 

In an additional article I have written, I have included two students' writings on the First Amendment. I wanted to share with you what students will say when they are given the chance to write freely on things they care about. They are included in the article, "The First Amendment and Young America." These seniors impressed me. Most of them entered my room dreading their future in Government Class and they are leaving better citizens. I told them on day one that Government class is to prepare them for being effective and educated citizens. Now they understand my idea of effective and educated. 

As a final note, during our congressional debates, I allowed the students to elect a Presiding Officer. One of the boys playing that role learned what it is like trying to keep a class of thirty seniors in some sort of order near the end of the day. He told me he has a new understanding for what teachers go through and now that he can empathize, he apologized for acting out in the past and has been far more respectful. Now, are walking in someone else's shoes, better understanding your own behavior and correcting it some of the core democratic values? I do not think so because they were not on the list of topics I was given to cover. 
by Katy Landless

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