Actors Morgan Freeman and Leonard DeCaprio, and the character from TV comedy The Office, Michael Scott, were nominees for U.S. president in the Senior Civics course I observed on September 12, 2016. The district requires the one-semester course for high school graduation. The unit was on political campaigns for the presidency and these actors were candidates that three of the five groups of 27 seniors had nominated. Each group, clicking away on their laptops and tablets while talking to one another were coming up with party labels, nominees and were working on writing a platform. As part of the unit, they would also be creating posters and video ads–all to get their candidate into the White House in November. I was watching a simulation of a presidential campaign .
Sarah Denniston (pseudonym) had invited me to visit her Northern California high school. Hacienda High School (pseudonym) has over 1900 students divided about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). About 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. Sarah Denniston teaches AP European history and Senior Civics. A graduate (and track star) of the high school in which she now teaches, Denniston has been teaching 10 years at Hacienda.
The high school became a Bring-Your-Own-Device school two years ago. The district adopted BYOD following teacher- and administrator-initiated pilot projects that established nearly all students had laptops or tablets they could use for their classes and enough teachers were sufficiently skilled to integrate the hardware and software into their daily lessons. For students who lack a device, forget theirs, or if one dies suddenly in school, Chromebooks are available in the school’s Book Room. Teachers decide how to weave technologies into their lessons; there is no district prescribed one-best-way for teachers to use the devices.
I observed the Senior Civics class between 8:10-9:00AM. The classroom had pods of four desks scattered throughout the room. Walls were adorned with assignments, photos, posters on critical thinking skills, and student work. There is a hardbound text (TCI, Government Alive: Power, Politics and You) used by students to read excerpts from different chapters assigned by Denniston.
After the tardy bell rang, Denniston , wearing a white shirt-blouse and dark blue slacks, immediately got the students’ attention by flashing on the white board CNN anchors reporting on the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns over the weekend. She spoke about each of the campaigns and connected the campaigns of the Republican and Democrat parties to the unit they were working on. She then has students plunge into the task for the day: divide into groups and each one create a party, name it, decide who the nominee will be, and begin writing the party platform.
Before students went into self-chosen groups, Denniston pointed out that they should choose carefully because political values differ in the class and if you go with your friends you may discover differences arise that you did not know about and things may become difficult. She then directed students to choose their groups. Students milled about, for a few minutes deciding among themselves, and went into five groups. They moved desks to form circles.
Even though it is the fifth week of the semester, as seniors, they seem to know each other well enough so I did not hear any introductions. Each group begins discussing the name of their party, who they will nominate for president, and what will be in their platform. Denniston walks around the room checking on what each group is doing.
As I scan the class, I see all five groups talking to one another. Each group has a template for writing a party platform on their screens that they use. Denniston gave me a copy (see below)
Political Party Platform Questions
Directions: Go to GOP, DNC, Tea Party, Green Party, communist party etc and examine their platforms. Answer the questions below based on the platforms you find. Use a color key to code your responses; red is for GOP, Blue for DNC, Green for Green Party, etc.
- What kind of economic growth will you promote? How?
- How will you reduce poverty?
- How will you reduce unemployment?
- What will you do with taxes?
- How will you deal with climate change?
- How will you protect the natural environment?
- What kind of energy policy?
- How will you improve the educational system?
- Will you shift to a voucher system?
- Will you increase standardized testing?
- Will you make higher levels of education free?
- What will you do to promote new medical research?
- What will you do to make healthcare more accessible to more people?
Domestic Social Issues
- Do you support abortion? Do you support gay marriage?
- Do you support affirmative action programs?
- What will you do to make our country more safe and secure?
- What is your policy about border control
- Will you tighten or loosen immigration standards? How?
- Will you promote the Dream Act?
- Will you have different standards for immigration from different nations?
- What will you do to fight crime?
- Will you expand or shrink the police force? Why?
- Will you expand or shrink the prison system? Why?
- Will you legalize certain drugs? If so, which ones? Why?
- Do you support the death penalty? Why or why not?
- How do you think the US should relate to the larger world?
- What should we do about the war in Iraq?
According to Denniston, each group decides who does what to complete group tasks. There are no formal roles but there is a group contract that each student signs (for copy of contract, see here).
There is much laughing and back-and-forth joshing among the students in the group as they talk about party names and nominees. In two groups adjacent to me, I note that one student in each group dominates the exchanges and one student in each group hardly speaks at all. Another student in one of the groups eyed photos for a few minutes and then shifted back to task.
After about 15 minutes of groups working on tasks, I walk around to ask questions about nominees of the groups. Three groups have chosen theirs (see nominees above); the others have not. Other groups have party names and are just beginning to write platforms. I did not see any obvious off-task behavior in any of the groups. Participation of group members, as I listened and watched, varied a great deal over the 30 minutes they were in groups.
Denniston checks in with groups in the last 10 minutes of the period, asking and answering questions.
The bell rings ending the class. The 27 students leave the room.