National Academy 2008

My Wish for You: A Letter to My Students Past, Present and Future

Katie Reen graciously shared a copy of her oral exam paper incorporating her insighhts from the National Academy at Occidental College last summer. Katie’s students are 11 and 12 years old and she explains, “The concept of my paper is a letter to my students, past, present and future about what I wish for them as people and as citizens.”

Below is the section related to citizenship…

Now you know that no love letter written to you from me would be complete without my wishes for you as citizens of our community, our country and our world.  And you may think that it is slightly strange that I would transition to the topic of politics in a letter about religion and spirituality as most see them as completely unconnected, or even the antithesis of one another.  But I actually see them as very connected.  You see when I think of our membership in a democratic society, I consider it to be a covenantal relationship.  Each one of us enters this sacred compact and agrees to jointly protect and defend one another’s freedom and liberty.  The preservation of this covenant ought to be the principle business of our work as citizens.

While I don’t want to put an undue amount of pressure on you, I do think you all should know that I fundamentally believe that the survival of our democracy rests on your shoulders.  Our Founding Fathers designed our unique form of democracy as a “Grand Experiment.”  They naively believed that the people, yes the people, could be trusted to guard their liberties and build a society based on justice and the common good.  And though they borrowed their ideas from the great thinkers of antiquity including Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Hobbs, their ideas were revolutionary and a clear departure from the past.

Although the system they created is less than perfect, I would venture to say that you enjoy more security, more safety, more opportunity, and more freedom in the United States than people in any other part of the world.  If you want this experiment to succeed – your energy, enthusiasm and service is required.  George Marshall, an American general, once said that, “Democracy is the most demanding of all forms of government in terms of the energy, imagination, and public spirit required of the individual.”  You, the individual, the citizen, are the most crucial component of our nation’s survival. Just as it has been suggested that your teachers are not teaching you enough about religion and spirituality, it has also been suggested that they are not teaching you enough about the foundations of government and your role in its upkeep.  There is some irony in this phenomenon, as the original purpose of public education was to educate the citizen for it was feared that without an educated and virtuous citizenry, no republic could survive.  Until last summer, I would have considered myself to be a teacher that Thomas Jefferson would be proud of, as I always taught my students about their government.  However, after attending a three week long academy sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, I learned that I had been going about this study in my classroom all wrong.

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A Paradigm: Six Words for the National Academy

You might remember a New York Times contest to craft a six word motto for the United States. We turned the powerhouse of Academy thinking at the question. Laura suggested a phrase you might recognize…


I think that phrase resonated as a result of her work at Monpelier’s NEH Landmark institute. Keith reviewed his notes from the Academy and provided a whole list of possibilities! This year’s National Academy wrestled a rigorous three weeks but still found time to toy with the idea of what six words would be the best represent their three weeks of scholarship in Los Angeles.

It’s something like the re-writing project…

What six words would you propose for the National Academy if you wanted to communicate as much of IT as possible with only THIS fragment?

National Academy 2008: Is it Over?

The Rangeview building is nearly quiet this afternoon. It isn’t that the exchange students all went to the beach today but that this year’s National Academy has run out of time.

The machines still hum but the electricity of rigorous academic work is missing. From a discussion of constitutional citizenship befitting an intelligent people to an afternoon of panel presentations, our Friday was heavy with hard work and world-making ideas.

This is the Academy that forever has the story of the L.A. quake during a lecture and 100 different strategies for propping a door open. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many ice cream sandwiches in three weeks time!

As the group made their way to the exit this morning, we all wondered about Infanta’s super early super shuttle. It looks like she made it. There was an emergency mission to reunite Zeke with his toiletries at LAX. There might be room here for a joke about his short-shorts but I’ll let it pass. Todd had just one more moment of frustration when the van driver couldn’t find his reservation but it was no problem for Mir. He took the opportunity to have one more cigarette.

But there’s too much that’s happened here to simply walk away. What will you do with it all?

Politicolor is a space to talk through it. The 2007 crew has used Politicolor to share their work during the Academy and express their appreciation. And, remembering time with new friends or out of this world experiences is exactly how Politicolor got its start.

What do you want to remember? Alumni, don’t hesitate to join the conversation by telling us how the Academy has “haunted” you this past school year. This crew from 2008 might need your help to find solid ground as they return to school. If anyone would like to share their work from the Academy (either the writing project or the panel presentation), e-mail me and let’s share it.

So, one more afternoon of crafting questions to continue the conversation….

What thoughts did you have as the National Academy drew to a close?

How is the work of the Academy threatening to reverberate through your teaching and thinking?

What are you most proud of when you review your writing assignment or panel presentation?

Did a colleague’s presentation provoke a new degree of clarity or spark a new curiosity?

Constitutional Thinking Requires Constitutional Teaching

At the National Academy today, Kevin Fox presented his thoughts on his own constitutional thinking and teaching. In the Academy tradition, his inquiry started with, “What is it?”. His answers included…



Creative constructive imaginative

Present on-going

Whole ordered (not orderly)

Scientific systematic experimental

Balanced (between extremes)

Inclusive (of the parts and the whole)

Serious (treat ideas seriously)

Complex (surplus of mind)

Teaching beyond the test

Purpose driven

Problem generating & solving

With a quick wit, he concluded this line of thought with a simple paraphrase of James Bradley Thayer’s doctrine of constitutional interpretation, “Let them hurt. Make them feel it.” We’re convinced, however, that it doesn’t have to hurt! We can work together to craft classrooms to promote constitutional thinking.

As an example of constitutional thinking and teaching, Kevin shared an activity he uses in his classroom to confront the misunderstanding of Locke’s theory that it requires us to give up our rights to be protected by the government. He gave us each a blank piece of paper and asked us to designate a two-inch margin by drawing a dotted line down the length of the page. We then designated three separate sections of the paper by writing “LEGISLATIVE,” “EXECUTIVE,” and “LEGISLATIVE” across the page. It’s important that these headings cross the dotted line and use part of the reserved margin. We then wrote our rights of “LIFE,” “LIBERTY,” and “ESTATE” between the previous headings. This time it was important to not use the reserved margin.

We then consented to our contract of government by tearing that two-inch margin from the page and contributing it to the “government pot” Kevin provided. A portion of the legislative, executive, and judicial power from each of us was contributed to the government while we each retained the remaining powers and our rights. This activity effectively confronted the misunderstanding Kevin had targeted, but there was a new problem. We each still had some of our executive and judicial power in reserve! What a model of constitutional teaching! Just like constitution making, our newest solutions provide even newer problems.

With this as our model, the 2008 National Academy took time to consider how to improve on this model or how to carry a central concept from the past thre weeks back to their classrooms. Ideas included Play-doh Leviathans and lots of boxes! A previous post on Politicolor also asked us all to consider constitutional teaching through the words of the Preamble. Let’s share those ideas…

Please use the comments below to share your ideas as a  result of today’s activity. Alumni, you can join the effort by sharing your stories of what you were able to include in your classroom this past year.