#NationalTeachersDay: Interviews with Outstanding Civic Educators

Several months ago, I put a note on Twitter asking to speak with outstanding civic educators. I wanted to hear their stories and spotlight the amazing and hard work they do every day to educate our nation’s young people about the Constitution, our nation’s history and system of government. Below, are the resulting interviews. John Jay famously said “Knowledge is the soul of a Republic.” Civics and history teachers nourish that soul. On National Teachers Day, join me in celebrating these outstanding teachers. Read and share their stories!

 

(1) Gary Neuzil

Iowa City West High School, 30th year

http://www.edline.net/pages/westhighschool

Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa City Community School District

High School: Grades 11 and 12

US Government, Psychology, and Sociology

Q: What led to your decision to become a civics teacher?

A: My Dad was a lawyer and a veteran and growing up in a family of 6 kids and somehow along the way I became the “chosen one” to follow in his footsteps in the law profession, so growing up and being aware of and respecting our Country, our Flag, our service men and women was just part of the culture we were raised in. I had inspiring Social Studies teachers in my junior high and high school years which I gravitated towards and the importance of our history and citizenship became more than just what was to be taught, it became a part of who I felt I was supposed to be as a citizen. Studying at the University of Iowa as an undergraduate my course work was in Political Science and Sociology, again leading in the direction of law, but it was in late October of my senior year when I just had a spur of the moment reckoning that my direction in life was not to be a lawyer, but to be a teacher. Dropping that bombshell on my parents was difficult, but the next day, I was in the Office of Education and making the arrangements to enter into the Social Studies Education program. Why in the end? Probably two teachers, one in junior high that made the connection between history and government directly to my life and the other in high school, a typing teacher who basically said that if I kept looking at the keyboard I would never learn how to type and that was a decision I had to make and he could not make it for me.

Q: Why do you think civics education is so important?

A: Our job as educators is to provide the opportunity for students to leave our classrooms as intelligent and productive members of our society. I cannot think of anything more important than civics education that allows for this to happen. To do so, it is not just a matter of memorizing the Preamble to our Constitution or being able to sing “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill” (although I do love that one), it is a matter of understanding the political and historical background, the philosophies behind our Declaration of Independence, why the Articles of Confederation was the first organization of the national government, and how its weaknesses created the demand for the Constitutional Convention. Students need to know that what we have today, our freedoms, our rights, and our liberties did not just pop out of thin air, nor out of one person’s mind, but it was a process, and it is a continual process. And without this understanding and appreciation, these freedoms, rights, and liberties could be lost if not maintained.

Q:  How often do you discuss the Constitution in your classroom? 

A: In my US Government class, daily, or as I like to tell my students, “all roads lead back to the US Constitution.”

Q: What topics or projects do your students get most excited about? 

I encourage and emphasize students paying attention to the current events, at the local, state, national, and world levels. When news events warrant class discussion focuses on those stories and then I like to bring the stories impact into the lives of the students whenever possible. Making the connection between the here and now to the principles and concepts of our government and our Constitution. In particular, the election process, the primaries, the caucuses (particularly for my students living in Iowa), and the elections. I do emphasize the importance of being an informed citizen to my students, and that to be so, not any one source but multiple sources of the media is required to get a better understanding of today’s news. I do not shy away from the controversial topics, but balance of both sides, and sometimes multiples sides of view is always a requirement.

Q:  In an ideal world, what would civics education look like in this country?

A: I would like to see the same emphasis, excitement, and focus on the teaching of civics to our students as we are seeing in areas such as Math and Sciences in programs such as STEM. We need to increase the amount of requirements for graduation in this area, with specialized courses in civics and government to allow more time to practice the meaning behind the Constitutional principles. In this ideal world, more time or course work would be specific to local and state government, civic participation, political philosophy, the Founding Period, politics and elections, the media and current events. Many of these of course are units of study, but instead of just being units, they could become specialized courses to allow for a more interactive and meaningful experience for students in order for them to leave school better prepared to become active citizens in our society.

 Q: If you could say anything to our nation’s young people, what would you say?

Do not simplify your interpretation of our government and society by what you might be reading on your social media…there is so much more out there. Today, we have more access to more information than ever before in human history. You have more access on your cell phone and on the internet than ever before in human history. There are more forms of media than ever before in human history. Use it. Analyze it. Think about it. Remember there are more than one side of any one story. If compelled, do something about it. But, you must be informed first. You must understand the guiding principles of our Constitution, the history of our Country, and the rights and freedoms that others have fought for. Never take any of those for granted. And never assume that they could not be taken away.

(2) John Tierney

Teacher at Adobe Middle School, Elko Nevada

8th Grade Civics Instructor

2016 Nevada Teacher of the Year

2017 NEA Affiliate Teacher of the Year

Q: What led to your decision to become a civics teacher?

A: Watching the assassination of President Kennedy while I was in class in the third grade got me interested in studying American politics. I could not understand why anyone would want to kill a president so I began researching. Throughout high school I studied foreign and American governments, especially apartheid in South Africa then studies political science and journalism in college.

After college, I went to work for the Employment Development Department CETA program but with the election of Reagan the job disappeared. My dad taught biology for 31 years and suggested I try teaching as a profession. I started in the Bay Area of California as a teacher of at risk students and found most of them were very bright but lacked academic skills to be successful in school so skill acquisition became a focus.

I moved to Elko Nevada 27 years ago, when my grant expired in California and became a full time middle school teacher of US History where I found my students knew next to nothing about the government of the country or their local government. I was asked to design a class to get students involved with both and this class has become my full-time learning position. The class, called Junior Leadership, is under constant construction as we incorporate technology and explore as many aspects of local, state and national government as we can during a semester.

Q: Why do you think civics education is so important?

A: Students need to know, at a young age, government is not all about one vote and being done; all politics are local. They need to understand the process for getting things done and for getting involved at the local level while understanding the bigger picture of American government. They need to understand they can influence the process in a significant way by getting involved, using the telephone, emailing and staying in touch with what is happening in their community and nationally beyond a presidential election.

As a citizen, they are the ones who hold an elected official accountable and these elected officials are reachable. Students need to understand most of these officials want to do well by their constituents and their voice can be heard. These officials are, for the most part, hardworking people just like them and will listen. We don’t need term limits what we need are knowledgeable voters and this responsibility lies with “We The People.”

Q: How often do you discuss the Constitution in your classroom? 

We rarely discuss the Constitution, we engage with the document in its’ original form. This semester my students engaged in a simulation regarding Article II. Students read then worked with a DBQ to understand the document better. Once we had some understanding each class elected a president to deal with a domestic or foreign policy issue in a simulation then we proceeded to work through it forming a cabinet and attempting to solve the problem

Their final for the semester is working through cases involving the First Amendment Freedom of Speech in public schools and learning how to break a case down into a legal brief while providing a supported opinion as an official 8th grade Supreme Court justice. WE will see what next semester brings.

Q: What topics or projects do your students get most excited about? 

A: My students seem to engage at the highest level when they are forced to argue/debate a stance. In the beginning, they hate to research information for this practice but they begin to find research is the ammunition they need to win and most of my students are competitive enough they want to be challenged and to win the challenge. The Supreme Court decisions regarding First and Fourth Amendments in school totally pique their interest and engage them in active debate and support.

Q: In an ideal world, what would civics education look like in this country?

A civics class should be a place where students can engage in active debate, exploration of current and past issues and get involved in government at the local level. Civics should be a required part of any public-school experience and students should be able to meet and interact with their elected and appointed officials. Government should not be an entity which is separate from daily living, it needs to be understood as aspect of daily life which a citizen can access and influence. The classes need to be engaging, interactive and involved in the community. Government is not a static entity to be studied, it is a living breathing being which they can learn to understand and influence.

Q: If you could say anything to our nation’s young people, what would you say?

Reach out and get to know your local leaders. They are shop keepers, electricians, and workers just like you. Try to be engaged with your community in a positive way and make a difference for you, your children and your future.

Thanks for the opportunity. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you. After teaching for 35 years I am going to be retiring at the end of this school year. I am going to get involved with advocating for the profession and for my students. The emphasis on standardized testing is killing public schools and I do not want to see this happen. I have no idea right now what this will look like but it is the direction I am headed.

(3) Richard Clark

Reno High School – Reno, NV.

12th Grade AP US Government  & We the People

Q: What led to your decision to become a civics teacher?

A: I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in 2nd grade, Mrs. Douglas was my inspiration.  I had the unique experience of having my grandparents live with me from the time I was born until they both passed away. It was there stories of growing up during the Depression and experiencing World War II that inspired my love for history. But it was not until I started teaching government my first year that I fell in love with civic education.

Q: Why do you think civics education is so important?

“We the People of the United States, in order to make a more perfect union…” This is why civic education is so important.  We cannot have a functioning republic without an educated citizenry. The more I teach more I realize how important this is and how uneducated much of the country is about our system of government.

Q: How often do you discuss the Constitution in your classroom? 

– Everyday, it is almost impossible not to.

Q: What topics or projects do your students get most excited about? 

To quote one of my students last year “The Commerce clause, I love talking about the commerce clause.”  To each their own.  I have a student who loves political philosophy, another who loves the 4th Amendment and technology, another who lives for the 14th Amendment.

Q: In an ideal world, what would civics education look like in this country?

It would be for students to experience government in action more.  To go and see policy being made, to talk to elected officials from their state, city or county governments.  Talk to judges, and prosecutors and public defenders.  It would be for elementary teachers to teach more history and more civic education.

Q: If you could say anything to our nation’s young people, what would you say?

I say it to my students all the time, I am sorry for the 2016 Presidential election.  This has been a mockery of our system. Civil discourse is important, disagreement is important, but we need to have officials who are willing to sit and do the dirty work; not insult, blame, or obstruct.

I think President Obama said it well during his Farewell Address: So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some.

(4) Andrew Conneen

Adlai E. Stevenson High School

AP American Government and AP Comparative Government for seniors.

Q: What led to your decision to become a civics teacher?

Looking back at, when I was able to get my government and history teacher passes to a George H.W. Bush rally in 1988, I probably set my fate to become a civics teacher committed to finding fun political events to take students to observe. My involvement with local journalism during undergrad cemented my interest in trying to communicate how government operates.

Q: Why do you think civics education is so important?

Through teaching about other governments in Comparative government, I’ve developed a much stronger appreciation about the role of a robust civil society to strengthen any country’s democratic culture.

Knowing the statistics about the weakening of American social capital, I find it essential that schools teach and encourage our students to understand the importance of making civics more than a class. We have to vigilantly encourage students to make civics a lifestyle in order to grow civil society groups here.

Q: How often do you discuss the Constitution in your classroom? 

I’m constantly teaching the Constitution and, particularly, how much of our government process operates outside of the words of the Constitution. I’m fascinated about thinking of the biggest changes in American government in the last 60 years and trying to have students connect these changes to words of the Constitution. It’s certainly not the easiest task.

Q: What topics or projects do your students get most excited about?

With encouragement and support from Mikva Challenge, we’ve implemented a service learning program called Action Civics. We’ve had incredible turnout for our afterschool civics events that we’re able to wed with AP government curriculum. From election judge training to local campaign expos to our marching band leading early voters on a parade to the polls, we’ve mananged to find outside activities for all 700+ of our AP government students.

Q: In an ideal world, what would civics education look like in this country?

In an ideal world, I’d alternate between weekly simulations of Iowa caucus-style deliberations about the most pertinent issues in the community and Model UN-style simulations.

Q: If you could say anything to our nation’s young people, what would you say?

Learn how to “get into the room” and advocate. Develop relationships with your local government officials. Compliment their successes. Criticize their failures. Make suggestions for changes and consider joining them in public service some day.

(5) Merri Weir

Not teaching now but was at the Academy of Medical Arts @ Carson mainly grade 9 & 11 but 12thfor any years

 

Q: What led to your decision to become a civics teacher?

Teaching civics just seemed like the most natural logical thing.  No matter the grade level or subject Civics is built into the curriculum and something I emphasized.

Q: Why do you think civics education is so important?

Civics education in a way tackles the question What does it mean to be an American?  Civics is our guiding light for how we should live our lives, treat our fellow man & support / challenge government.
Q: How often do you discuss the Constitution in your classroom? 

When I was in the classroom almost every day – we started by dissecting the Preamble and went from there. I would to have a National reading of the Constitution original with changes and follow it with a teach-in and then ensure it is brought back to the all grade levels so ALL citizens understand this amazing document instead of soundbite Constitution.

Q: What topics or projects do your students get most excited about? 

Students enjoyed Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists pitch your plan – turning the ideas into an ad Campaign

Committee of Correspondence twitter

TCI Constitution Activity – hard but rewarding

TCI History Alive Balancing the Budget – hard but rewarding

DBQ Project any of the lessons from http://www.dbqproject.com/civics-mini-qs.php but the Preamble activity and Search & Seizure were favorites

Madison Bill of Rights not just 10

Thomas Paine Common Sense

iCivics games

CRF http://www.crfcap.org/ Civics Action Project

Center for Civics Ed http://www.civiced.org/programs/project-citizen Project Citizen

Q: In an ideal world, what would civics education look like in this country?

For me it would be a 13 year roll out starting in K and building each grade level with a 12 grade capstone project like CAP or Project Citizen tied to their own community.

 

Q: If you could say anything to our nation’s young people, what would you say?

Don’t lose hope, find your passion, start local, get involved!  It has always been the young who move the nation forward.

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