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Civics: Should Children Be Prepared To Be Adult Citizens? (Part II)

Could native-born Americans pass this test? (https://www.amazon.com)

In the previous post, I raised the issue of the state of civics in education. I examined the situation in some states including Virginia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In this post, I wish to return to Connecticut before turning to New York.

The Connecticut High School History Council

At the beginning of this school year in September, the Connecticut High School History Council (CTHSHC) issued a call to high school students. CTHSHC, a program of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN), is a statewide student group conceived by Glastonbury High School seniors. It is made up of students from all around the state who share a passion for history and civics and want to create constructive change using their interest. Student participants are required to work together on an annual project related to an issue that has affected the state and its communities both historically and in the present. Students are asked to research the history of the issue at their local historical societies, meet with elected officials and others to learn how to take civic action, and then work together to take that action. CTHSHC decided to focus this school year’s research on: “What aspects of the women’s right movement have affected women’s stance in the political and social sectors of Connecticut?” The kickoff meeting for this school year was held at Connecticut’s Old State House in Hartford. The due date for the submission of the projects is March 1, 2019 so I presume we will hear more about the results of this initiative in the spring, 2019.

On a slightly more historical note, I think it would be interesting to learn where the individual communities stood on the issue of women’s suffrage, soon to be a centennial event.

In the Age of Trump, Civics Courses Make a Comeback By Alina Tugend, New York Times, June 5, 2018

This project bears some similarities to the Connecticut one (above) except it is at a single school system and not as a statewide program. It also is a multiyear project that starts with students in the 9th grade and continues for all four school years which makes it different from most projects. The new initiative is called Original Civic Research and Action. The participants are required “to immerse themselves in the workings of their town of Mamaroneck — just north of New York City — and find a useful solution to an ongoing problem. The project — for which students get no school credit in the first year — is the brainchild of Joseph Liberti, a longtime government and history teacher at the high school.”

And it is emblematic of a renewed nationwide effort to address, at both the high school and college level, issues that have been laid bare over the last few years — a lack of understanding of and trust in most civic institutions, a disconnection from government at all levels and intolerance for those who think and act differently….[Liberti] expected 12 students to sign up. He ended up with 32.

Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics education, according to the Center for American Progress; 30 states mandate a half-year and 11 states have no mandates. Only one state, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, require community service and civics courses before a student graduates….

A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that 37 percent of those surveyed couldn’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and about 75 percent don’t know all three branches of government.

In the Mamaroneck initiative, the educators envision the high school civic programs as part of a preparation for adult life. The goal of introducing students to civics as part of the school experience is the hope that they will continue to be involved after they graduate and become voters and taxpayers. Liberti said. “The goal is not just to produce informed citizens. but citizens who know how to make change.”

New York States Regents to the Rescue

On a more formal basis, the New York State Regents have decided to become involved in promoting civics in the schools.

The state Board of Regents dedicated much of their July [2018] meeting to a series of free-form “public retreat” discussions in which they sought to better define some ambitious priorities that have emerged from their work over the last three years – improving “equity” and ensuring students receive education leading to “civic readiness.”…

The concept of “civic readiness” also is on the Regents’ agenda for a better definition [along with equity]. As part of the state plan to comply with ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act], the Regents pledged to create a civic readiness index to measure schools’ success in preparing students to become well-informed participants in a democratic society.

The Regents discussed what school-level actions and programs they wanted to encourage. In the areas of curriculum, certification and assessment related to civic engagement, options include: capstone projects, a state “seal of civic engagement,” active citizenship portfolios, service learning and voter registration awareness.

They talked about preparing students for behaviors such as community service, voter registration and voting, and jury service, as well as helping them understand concepts and issues involving criminal justice, racial bias, bigotry, rule of law and freedom of the press.

The next step in the civic readiness initiative will be to establish an advisory committee of practitioners, including teachers, parents, school librarians, curriculum specialists, administrators and college professors to define civic readiness and to recommend mechanisms for teaching and measuring civic engagement skills. Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia said the committee will not convene before autumn.

As part of this initiative a Civic Readiness Index will be developed. It will permit the measuring of compliance by students and schools in meeting these goals. Naturally there will be instructions, guidelines, and reports in conjunction with the initiative. During the summer, Generation Citizen New York City (GCNYC) commented on the proposals by the New York State Regents.

Generation Citizen NYC submits public comment on forthcoming Civic Readiness Index

On August 13, 2018 Generation Citizen New York City submitted public comment to the Commissioner of the New York State Education Department regarding the civic readiness aspect of the Career, College and Civic Readiness Index being developed as part of New York’s implementation of Every Student Succeeds Act….Generation Citizen is a nine-year-old national organization that partners with teachers and schools to help them implement a comprehensive, high-quality Action Civics education program. Our goal is to ensure that every student in the United States gains the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our democracy as active, lifelong citizens.

Civic Engagement Gap

After detailing New York’s poor civic performance, GCNYC states is goals: Students learn about democratic structures and processes by examining their community, building consensus around an issue, conducting research, engaging local policy makers, and reflecting on the experience. GCNYC is particularly concerned with under-performing and under-resourced schools. Again one notices the emphasis on the local, on the community, on the world of the student. Municipal historians and historical societies should be part of this conversation. In New York, with the 2019 centennial of the law requiring municipalities to have historians, the need to embrace this effort should be obvious. With the New York City having only five municipal historians, one per borough, for approximately half the population of the state, the need to update this 100 year law is critical.

Defining the Civic Readiness Index

GCNYC applauds the Board of Regents …for establishing the CCCRI in the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act plan and recognizing civics education as a critical component of ensuring students receive a well-rounded education. While the CCCRI establishes a baseline for holding schools accountable for ensuring
students’ civic readiness, the proposed regulations do not establish a civic readiness standard. We recommend that the State Education Department adopt regulations to define civic readiness.

One item in particular attracted the attention of GCNYC: the civics seal.

We believe that the civics seal prerequisites should, at minimum, include two capstone projects to be sequenced in eighth grade social studies and the existing Participation in Government course, which includes these Action Civics elements: community examination, issue identification, research, strategizing, taking action, and reflection.

To that end, we believe that, in tandem with the civics seal, the state must allocate funding to districts to provide teachers with the necessary professional development that aligns to implementing these changes…. This professional development should include providing teachers with resources, supports for coaches and administrators, and examples of how and where to find resources independently.

GCNYC is well aware of the dangers in teachers not being prepared to implement the Civics Readiness Index program and of the funding issues related to the poorer school districts. Its call for buy-in to the project from teachers and other education stakeholders should also include the municipal historians and history organizations.

I should add that in New York, Shelley Mayer, the new chair of Senate Education Committee, has expressed her interest in civics, most recently at the annual conference of social studies teachers for the Lower Hudson, in a session I put together on local history. I am looking forward to the new legislative session to begin in January and to the promotion of state and local history and civics.

Civics: Should Children Be Prepared To Be Adult Citizens? What Is Your State Doing?

What is the state of civics in your state? In our country? Let’s look at the situation in some states. This blog is not meant to be exhaustive but to survey the situation in some selected areas.

NEW HAMPSHIRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY

 A call to arms was raised in 2017 by William Dunlap, president of the New Hampshire Historical Society, in an op-ed piece in the Union Leader. He noted that about 70% of the fourth graders in the state participated in the historical society’s education programs. That figure seems unusually high and I doubt that too many other historical societies can claim to reach such a proportion of students in their state. It certainly provides the historical society with a statewide insight otherwise lacking.

According to Dunlap, New Hampshire schools are eliminating or dramatically limiting social studies instruction. The results are readily observed by the historical society staff who have “observed a precipitous decline in basic historical knowledge among our student visitors, particularly in the past five years.” He claims that the students “do not know what the American Revolution was, or even that we fought the British. They cannot list in correct chronological order the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II.” I hope they can place World Wars I and II in chronological order! As a result some of the historical society’s programs have had to be curtailed simply because the students do not know enough to understand and benefit from them. Historical societies are supposed to supplement the classroom work, not replace it in a field trip.

Dunlap then sounded the alarm:

Kids need an understanding of how our civic institutions work so they can become fully participating citizens and educated voters. They need a basic understanding of American history to be able to contextualize problems and keep them in perspective. In short, a poor understanding of American institutions has alarming implications for American democracy and American civic values. While workforce development is an important consideration, it will do little good to have a workforce if we have lost our republic.

He faulted the New Hampshire k-12 curriculum and concluded:

We must designate time in our schools for history and civics as we’ve done for math and English. New Hampshire plays a unique role in the national political life, one that requires our citizens to be well-informed and knowledgeable in American norms and ideals. Our role confers a special obligation to see that our students are properly educated in history and civics so that they too may one day contribute to New Hampshire’s and the nation’s civic life.

Could one simply change the name of the state and historical society and repeat the same issue elsewhere?

RHODE ISLAND

The situation in nearby Rhode Island is even more dire. In November, parents filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island. The charge is that the state has failed to prepare children for citizenship and that such failure is a violation of their constitutional rights. Specifically, students are not being taught the skills needed “to function productively as civic participants.” These functions include voting, jury duty, and a basic understanding of the political structure of the country. According to the lawsuit, in Rhode Island, schools are not even required to offer classes in government or civics, let alone requiring students to take them. Furthermore, the lawsuit claims teachers are not even trained in civics. As a result, many students lack the academic skills needed to effectively exercise their right to freedom of speech and to vote. In effect, the plaintiffs are using the absence of civics as a way to address other shortcomings in the school system such as learning to read. Even so, it still remains true that the state is failing in the preparation of its children to be ready to function as adult citizens in a democratic society.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION of STATE BOARDS of EDUCATION (NASBE)   

At the national level, this issue was addressed by NASBE in a blog Policies to Promote Civic Engagement Take Shape on September 7 by Valerie Norville, NASBE’s editorial director. She began by identifying the need and reporting on the current state of civics.

Savvy state boards of education recognize that high-quality civic education not only prepares students to vote and understand how the U.S. Constitution divides political power. It helps students acquire skills needed to make difficult choices that affect their communities, advocate for themselves and others on public matters, and contribute to healthy, informed civic engagement.

 Despite widespread concerns about divisiveness and disinformation in civic dialogue across the United States, most state boards in 2018 have not revisited civic education policies. A few states have.

She singled out Virginia for taking the lead in developing a Board of Education’s Excellence in Civics Education Seal. Students must receive at least a B in the required series of history and government classes and complete 50 hours of community service, including participation in scouting organizations, JROTC, political campaigns, or government internships to earn this seal. James Dillard, board member and member of the Civic Commission,

called on the board to consider added policies to improve civic education in Virginia. In particular, he lamented the paucity of teacher professional development opportunities. “It’s coming at the absolute worst time, when we need more understanding,” said Dillard.

Norville concluded her post by citing the work in Connecticut’s Red, White and Blue Schools program, which recognizes districts and individual schools that have taught civics in innovative ways in the classroom and through activities in the community.

CONNECTICUT RED, WHITE AND BLUE SCHOOLS PROGRAM

In 2017, a notice was sent on a new program for Social Studies Teachers called the Red White and Blue Program. According to the notice, the Red, White and Blue program is

cosponsored by the State Department of Education, and the Secretary of State’s Office. The program is designed to recognize schools that do an extraordinary job of teaching civics. This year’s theme is “Teaching Local Perspectives”, and will honor schools that do an exceptional job of teaching local history and the background of their town or city. We welcome elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools to participate in this program. Ways to study local history and explore resources are:

Explore the state or local town’s history
Contact your local Historical Societies
Visit the town hall or museums if available
What role your town has played in the state’s history
Who are important individuals in your town’s history
Engagement with Junior Achievement or Connecticut History Day

The program comes complete with lesson plans, rubrics for k-5 and 6-12, and a variety of suggestions regarding reaching out into the community. In her article above, Norville referred to the first group of schools to be recognized for their participation in the program. The theme for 2018 was “Exploring our Historical Roots.”

In a related but separate program, Connecticut also launched Where I Live: Connecticut, a new social studies resource for third/fourth grade about Connecticut. Where I Live: Connecticut is designed to support the new social studies frameworks for Grade 3, “Our State and Our City/Town: Yesterday and Today.” In the accompanying packet, teachers will find content that builds on the Grade 2 frameworks, “Making a Difference.” It is also designed to support the new inquiry arc methodology and is chocked full of nonfiction reading for English/Language Arts teaching. Where I Live: Connecticut was piloted in 18 districts and more than 50 classrooms in the spring, 2017 before going live.

There is a specific section for historical societies and museums in the program. In effect, they are asked to register their municipality for the program.

Submit a “My Town” for Your Town

See a “My Town” example HERE and follow the instructions below to add your town to Where I Live: Connecticut. 

Answer each of the following questions in 100-150 words. Keep sentences and paragraphs short and uncomplicated–but don’t worry, we’ll revise to grade level.

Your town’s story should cover its history, economy, geography, and civics. Please discuss all people’s perspectives–the Native Americans who were there when the settlers arrived, African Americans (enslaved and free before 1848), and immigration in different eras. Please note if it was founded due to a geographic feature such as a river, or if technology of some kind influenced its development and growth (such as the railroad). Does it have a historic town green? Is the town character defined by factory buildings, farms, maritime activities? Please consider diversity of race and gender in selecting who to include in the notable people section.

Answer these questions in a WORD document (we’ll do the formatting once we load it into the Where I Live website.)

Where is my town?

How was it founded?

How do its residents make a living?

How did it grow?

Who are its notable people?

Please e-mail us high-resolution images that you have rights to or are in the public domain including a map, if possible, a population chart, and up to three images.

Please include links to resources that you’d like students and teachers to access such as field trip or programs that you offer.

Both the Red White and Blue and Where I Live: Connecticut programs seem like good ideas that address a critical issue in preparing children to be adults in a democratic society. I wonder if the people who implemented and operate the programs are available to give workshops to social studies teachers and history societies and museums outside of Connecticut.

If you are involved in a civics program in your state, please share it with me and I will help spread the word.

Sessions of Value at the American Historical Association Even If You Can Not Attend: Civics

The annual conference of the American Historical Association will be held January 3-6, 2019, in Chicago. I will not be attending the conference. I have reviewed the program book and there are many sessions which are of value to history organizations, municipal historians, and educators. Below are the abstracts of these sessions. If someone is attending the conference and would like to report on them to the history community, that would be appreciated.

This post focuses on sessions related to civics. The previous one addressed education. Some of the papers presented are available on the web by clicking on them.

Historians and the Public Sphere in Turbulent Political Times

Chair: Daniel M. Bessner, University of Washington
Panel: Daniel M. Bessner, University of Washington
Patrick Iber, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Nancy MacLean, Duke University
Rebecca Onion, Slate Magazine
Alejandro Velasco, New York University

Session Abstract

Recent political developments in the U.S., including the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, have engendered an outburst of popular historical writing. From books that explore the connections between the contemporary United States and the Weimar Republic to essays that analyze the deep-seated origins of American racism and xenophobia, historians have entered—and been welcome into—the public sphere in ways unimaginable as recently as two years ago. This roundtable, which consists of historians of various ranks, genders, and backgrounds, will address the problems and prospects of professional historians writing for a broader public in a moment of profound transformation and anxiety.

While historians have been encouraged to fight for the influence of our ideas in the public sphere, the conditions now making that possible seem fraught with potential problems. Trump, after all, campaigned on a platform that derided expertise, and described reported facts as “fake news.” How do professional historians cope with an environment in which many of their arguments raise present-day political concerns? Is there a risk of normal professional work being branded as a partisan activity—as something akin to “fake history”? At the same time, social media platforms make possible the wider dissemination of our work and allow us to interact with readers almost immediately. But they can also create the possibility of writing for popularity rather than complexity, or they bring with them the risks of abuse and harassment.

This roundtable will discuss the manifold public roles professional historians may play in the present moment. Questions we seek to address include: How do we balance roles as writers, activists, and pundits? How can we write effectively for a larger audience? How can historians bridge the gap between the academy and the public? To what ends should they do so? Can historians and the public learn from each other? How can we respond when we become the center of a public firestorm? And, perhaps most importantly, how should we think about professional obligations and responsibilities in these unsettled times? By examining these questions in depth at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, we hope to begin a conversation that will reverberate not only throughout the seminar halls of the university, but in the public sphere as well.

Loyal to Their Own Cause: African American Public Memory, Commemoration, and Contestation

Chair: W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Papers: Who Are the Real Americans? African American Civil War Memory and Narratives of Loyalty Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

“Legacies of Triumph”: African American Women’s Memorialization in Public History Sites
Alexandria Russell, University of South Carolina

“Belles Who Were There . . . 1960 Sit-Ins”: The Gendered Narratives and Commemoration of the Greensboro Sit-Ins Jasmin C. Howard, Michigan State University

This Costume Called My Skin: Black Historic Site Interpreters on the Front Lines of Public Memory Elon Cook Lee, Rhode Island School of Design

Comment: The Audience

Session Abstract

Loyal to their own Cause: African American Public Memory, Commemoration and Contestation is an exploration of how African Americans have been publicly memorialized in the contested physical landscape of the United States thereby critically engaging memorialization in both the North and South. The controversies surrounding the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Durham, Baltimore and various other southern locales last year has sparked conversations about how legacies are commemorated in contested spaces and thereby represent contested loyalties. Historically the South has been situated as a terrain fraught with racial violence and trauma where contestation associated with race has often led to blood shed. Contrastingly, the South is simultaneously situated as a homeland and a place of comfort. Engaging the South as a site of both collective pleasure and pain for African Americans, panelists seek to further examine the troubling of dominant and often limited southern narratives about African Americans throughout history. Relatedly, panelists seek to transgress narratives that frame the South as the predominant space for scholarship on early African American History by exploring the North as well as a contested space. Prior to the twentieth century Great Migration to the North, the North was a space of dynamic and complex African American life. Further, the lives of enslaved and free African Americans in the North during enslavement deserves further study. The history of African American life in the North during and after enslavement was also a site of pain and pleasure which is exemplified by the violence of Northern slavery and twentieth century urban race riots coupled with the opportunities that the North presented for African Americans fleeing the South during enslavement and Jim Crow.

Understanding the distinct contours of how African Americans have been memorialized highlights the intersection of race, gender, class, and space in public history. Panelists will examine the trajectory of African American commemorations from the seventeenth century to the modern-day, through their discussion of the roles of enslaved men and women in the North through an examination of current public historical interpretation in New England, freedmen and freedwomen as memory crafters of the Civil War, the commemoration of African American student activism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and African American women’s memorialization in the 1970s. In short, this panel seeks to make three notable interventions. We seek to showcase efforts by Black southerners to commemorate their past and contest White southern public memory because White Southern nostalgia or the lost cause is but one type of loyalty. African Americans are also committed to their own narratives and memory. Secondly, we seek to examine African American commemoration as a gendered process. Lastly, we seek to examine both commemoration in the North and South in order to produce rich scholarship and public history that is more reflective of true African American life. Timely in nature, we assert that to understand American historical memory we must reconsider African American public history through an examination of contested memory and spaces throughout the United States.

The American Revolution in World History: A Teaching Roundtable

Chair: Thanasis Kinias, Northeastern University
Panel: Marcus Filippello, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Jason Herbert, University of Minnesota
Amy-Elizabeth Manlapas, The Paideia School
Serena Zabin, Carleton College

Session Abstract

This round table will address the conference theme of ‘loyalty’ through a discussion of teaching the American Revolution in world-historical context. The standard narrative of the American Revolution is familiar and seldom problematized in survey courses at the high school or undergraduate level. Placing the American colonial rebellion in its global historical context gives students access to unfamiliar perspectives: British, French, and Spanish; Native American/First Nations; African diaspora; and so on. The participants in this round table are high school teachers, doctoral students, and university faculty members. They are both Americanists and world historians, with specializations that include the British Empire, Indigenous history, British and Spanish colonial America, and Africa.

Each panelist will speak briefly about how she or he uses world-historical context to challenge students’ preconceptions about the American Revolution. The chair will then moderate a conversation among the panelists and audience about how each other’s approaches can enhance all of our teaching of the American Revolution.

This round table is sponsored by the World History Association, which is committed to facilitating discussion of world history pedagogy among teachers and academics.

Prison/Education: Historians Take on a National Debate

Chair: Robert Smith, Marquette University
Panel: Jessica Neptune, Bard Prison Initiative, Chicago
Claire Potter, The New School
Shana Russell, Rutgers University at Newark
Liz Ševčenko, Rutgers University at Newark
Heather Ann Thompson, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

What role should historians be playing in the debate about mass incarceration in the United States? This roundtable proposes that understanding the role that “prison” plays in the American social order offers multiple opportunities for engagement, critique, publicly engaged scholarship, and activism. With these opportunities also come responsibilities to different constituencies. Participants in this roundtable will speak about their engagement with one or more of the publics engaged in rethinking the role of mass incarceration in our society: our students, in and out of prison; prison authorities and employees; a public that is often divided about the utility of prison for the social order and the justice system; public funding for scholarship that encourages debate but prohibits the politicization of that debate; and a reading public that requires well researched scholarship to re-engage and re-evaluate the rise of incarceration in our society.

Roundtable participants include a best-selling popular author who engages popular audiences, media producers, incarcerated people and their families; two directors of a public history project who facilitate college students doing community-based historical research on the local impact of incarceration; a scholar who taught a college course on comparative incarcerations under the auspices of the NEH Enduring Questions program; and the Director of the Bard College in Prison Project in Chicago.

The Student as Citizen: Loyalties, Disloyalties, and the Politics of Education

Chair: Jon Hale, College of Charleston

Papers: “To Participate in Their Own Destinies”: Detroit’s Community Control Movement and the Struggle to Redefine the Black High School Student as Citizen Dara Walker, Penn State University

The Moral Politics of Divestment: South Africa, the Anti-apartheid Movement, and American Higher Education in the 1980s David Busch, Carnegie Mellon University

Learn for America? American Studies in the College Classroom, 1945–60 Mario Rewers, Vanderbilt University

Comment: Andrea L. Turpin, Baylor University

Session Abstract

In 1965, Fredrick Rudolph published a small essay titled, “The Neglect of the Student as a Historical Tradition.” As the title suggested, he lamented the lack of scholarly attention paid to students and the way they shaped ideas of education. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rudolph wrote this piece in 1965, a year after the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley captured national headlines. Historians since have taken up his call, especially scholars of social movements who have brought to light the ways student activists helped establish black, ethnic, and women studies on American college campuses. This panel continues in this tradition and brings together scholars who explore the relationship between students and state institutions (social, educational, political, and cultural). How did state institutions conceptualize students as citizens? What mechanisms or practices did these institutions use to realize their vision of “the student as a citizen”? How did students respond to these practices and mechanisms? And what politics and social forces did they marshal in their responses? The scholars of this panel take up these questions, among others, in their papers that explore students and politics in mid-century America.

Let the Students Speak: Bring Back Convention II, a High School Civics Program

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, signing of U.S. Constitution by Junius Brutus Stearns (teachingamericanhistory.org)

Shortly after the Bicentennial, Bob Feinman, my father, created Convention II. It was a mock constitutional convention run by and for high school students. It was not about laws but about amendments. The students would propose, debate, and sometimes even ratify changes to the Constitution. The 2/3 vote requirement for passage made it difficult but not impossible for a proposed amendment to pass.

Convention II was held in Washington, D.C., in the House of Representatives. The students for and against a given amendment would debate the proposed amendments in the various committee and meeting rooms of the House of Representatives. If the proposed amendment was voted out of committee then it would be debated before the full body of students. That debate occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives, a chamber rarely used on weekends. I am sure the tourists who entered the chamber and looked down were first shocked to find people there, second shocked to find out they were young people, and third shocked to find out that the speakers made sense. Again, for the students from around the country who didn’t know each other to garner support for their favorite amendments during a weekend of no sleep was part of the learning experience.

As reported in the Washington Post “Constitutional Parley Tests Students’ Skills At Lawmaking”:

Convention II, the only outside organization allowed to meet on the floor of the House, where participants wound up the five-day convention on Saturday, is run by Southeastern University’s Center for the Study of Federalism, based in the District.

The program was born eight years ago in the mind of New Rochelle, N.Y., politician and lobbyist Boris Feinman, who “got fed up and annoyed with the stupidity of most people about their form of government and how it works,” he said. He set out to put excitement back into learning the political process.

Feinman said Convention II is “an experience the students will remember for years to come.” It is not only an exercise in governmental procedures, he said, but a lesson in human relationships.

“We’ve got all kinds of people in there, from the coal miner’s kid to the Harvard-Ivy League type. But at the end of a four-day pressure-cooker session here, you’d be surprised at how these kids respond. They’ll sling away verbally at each other. But what comes out is a beautiful understanding of each other based on practical political dealings.”

My father’s hope was that a college in the District of Columbia (or elsewhere) would adopt the program. He did have some brief success with Southeastern University but the financial support wasn’t there and it was unable to sustain the program. My father labored on because for him it was a labor love. He believed democracy was a hands-on sport and the that the future adult citizens in a democratic society needed hands-on training and preparation if they were to be ready for the job as adults.

Over the years, my father had worked at all grade levels to bring students into the political arena where the sausage is made. In New Rochelle, NY, where we lived he brought elementary school students into the city council chambers. The students sat in the chairs of the mayor and council people and debated local issues. He traveled to the county seat in White Plains and the state capital in Albany before taking it to the next step and the floor of the House of Representatives.

One thing you quickly realize along they way is that for the most part these rooms are empty. Our legislators don’t have 9-5 five days a week 52 weeks a year jobs. There is always space available if someone asks and if the legislators are willing. Usually my father would begin the process through his own representative at the local, county, and state level. Working on the Bicentennial helped introduce him to other people at the federal level. For awhile he even was sharing an apartment with multiple Representatives who don’t buy homes in D.C. but room together to minimize expenses. I believe that arrangement still exists today. In any event, it did pay off and my father was able to bring high school students into the House of Representatives where they debated proposed amendments to the Constitution.

I doubt if such access would be possible today. I also wonder if the mock convention would even work. Security procedures have changed since then. The atmosphere is much more contentious now then it was back then – each of the two political parties undoubtedly would want to make sure that the student participants voiced only acceptable positions and didn’t support passage of something crazy. However it would be easier to televise the proceedings and give all Americans a glimpse into the level of discourse of which high school students are capable.

On the other hand, we have just seen that happen in the real world. Right now in a still ongoing process students are taking the lead where adults fear to tread. Death of fellow students has sparked the survivors to action in the adult world. They are seeking change and are politicking the adult legislators to affect such changes. Whether they will succeed or not is not yet known and what any legislated changes might actually pass also remains unknown. Still, this effort is civics in the raw complete with a televised visit to the White House with the President of the United States and appearances on TV news and talk shows. A mock convention this is not.

We also have had the opportunity to observe the reaction by some Americans to the sight and sound of these survivors calling for action so never again would such a massacre occur. We have heard that these outspoken students are not really survivors but actors. We have heard that the students are not expressing their thoughts but are reciting lines they have been coached to speak as if they were carrying cards to remind them of what to say. We have heard that the parents of the survivors who speak out have received death threats. We have heard that the impassioned words, emotional collapses, and call for change are all part of prepackaged show, that trained performers are dispatched at a moments notice to travel to sites of disaster to proclaim their anti-American agenda. We should realize that there is no “come let us reason together” between people who inhabitant alternate universes is possible.

All the more reason for restoring to civics to the k-12 curriculum. If Americans when growing up don’t learn how to talk to each other, then there is little likelihood they will develop that skill as adults. If all debates assume apocalyptic proportion as a cosmic fight for the fate of the universe, then no change for the better is possible. Perhaps watching our kids debate in the halls of power will become as highly watched as some other competitions.

There was a time once before when students, more likely in college than high school, spoke out for change. At that time the death they sought to avoid was their own death over there, in Vietnam, and not here in their own schools. The President responded with a call for more guns in Vietnam. He became a one term President who chose not to risk the wrath of the American voter. This time the President called for more guns in the school. How will the students react this time? How will the voters react?