Political classroom

2015 National Academy: The Real Power of a Political Classroom

The Tree (photo by Chuck)

The Tree (photo by Chuck)

The 2015 National Academy for Civics and Government crossed the finish line in Los Angeles as the summer rolled into its final act for teachers, students and their families. The first day of school is again imminent and the Academy’s alumni are returning to their classrooms with big ideas about how to talk about politics.

After three weeks of relentless reading, provocative learning and sometimes heated debate, alumni leveraged the work of a long summer seminar to present their own answers to some very big questions about our political life together. Panel teams worked together to articulate the tension embedded in competing American paradigms, to design a currency and a creedal affirmation that better fit the U.S. Constitution and to interrogate the nature of liberty itself or democracy as it is lived. An enterprise launched with Cicero’s claim that a tree planted in the mind achieves a certain kind of permanence marked its finale by gazing up at a paradigm created through the inquiry, deliberation and collaboration of a community interested in not only how we teach citizens but in how we understand that role in the first place.

As if to prove this work is in no way wrapped in theory and kept at a distance from “the real world,” NPR recently posed a question about politics and classrooms driven by the research of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education emphasized the value of multiple competing views, investigating the context of current events and giving students the chance to do the talking themselves. The work of the National Academy represents a model for this kind of political classroom. A colorized framework of political order animates the Academy and works to generate political questions like those presented at its conclusion, questions that remain open to ongoing inquiry even as we each study and work to finally answer them. Open-ended questions about our shared political order create opportunities to breathe life into a civics curriculum and to resist the gravitational pull of partisan politics.

The National Academy “Writing Project” occurs after the first week of seminars and invites participants to step into a “world-making” text. The proposal requires much more than writing. The activity becomes an act approximating that of classic citizenship as Academicians find themselves “ruling” through a text they once considered so definitive and closed-ended that it ruled them. By re-writing the selected text in three different modes, the authors of this new writing, the Academicians, see the text anew and work to cultivate its power through emphasis, elaboration and visualization. Suddenly there is more to see in these familiar texts.

Unwilling to lose the gravitational pull of Cicero’s work, Shannon mapped out a parallel between On The Laws and Federalist No. 51:

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 2.46.38 PM


Dana mapped out the relationship Hobbes describes operating between an individual’s passions and reason and the commonwealth those attributes make possible:


With an entire library of political thought now built in the mind, Academy conversations in the last week shifted to questions of constitutional interpretation and the latest headlines. What does the debate over the American flag salute sound like from a perspective focused on maintaining the cohesiveness of the American people? From a perspective concerned for the natural rights of an individual and his conscious thought? What understanding of the government’s proper domain is necessary to lobby for legislation about marriage equality, abortion or marijuana legalization? These questions were no longer the domain of partisan policy making but were conduits to an interrogation of the multiple competing viewpoints on the very question of what it means to be a self-governing people..

The complexities of self-government came into view through those final conversations and were well-represented in the presentations on that last day too. A deep dig into the understanding of liberty within each text of political thought yielded a definition that retained at least two possibilities:


Panel Team: Central Concepts

An inquiry into the appropriateness of our current pledge, led one panel to propose two separate constitutional creeds, one for children and one for adults. The team believed connecting the individual to the constitutional order in a meaningful way required addressing different developmental capacities:

American Childrens Creed

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

Panel Team: Creedal Affirmation

A political classroom designed to pursue open questions rather than a partisan one delivering stale tropes is not an easy prescription but it is an accessible one. With the conclusion of this year’s National Academy, there are another 24 civic leaders returning to the classroom better equipped than ever to bring politics back into the classroom in the most meaningful ways.

Places to Go: Dr. Seuss and the Politicolors

Like any great model, the strength of the politicolors pairs their simplicity with their potential for greater interpretation.  The collective works of Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss are just the same.  In my second year of utilizing Professor Harris’s model, I coupled Seuss stories with each of the boxes.

I teach upper elementary students, but believe that great children’s literature contains the same room for re-discovery as any adult “classic.”  What follows is a summary of some Seuss, supplemented with a flurry of outside resources which might add greatly to the discourse, no matter what age your group.

[Note: I taught the boxes in the order listed, spacing out the Seuss enough that the next story to appear became an exciting “reveal,” rather than a mechanical happening.  As of this post, we still hadn’t gotten to Oh! The Places You’ll Go!]

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (Green Box).  I chose this story, as most of the students have read the original.  The plot remains essentially the same: Cat in said cap returns to unleash chaos upon (less?) trusting children.  Green box discussions match nicely with the beginning of the year in which rules are established.  Students easily grasp the notion of a state of nature and the importance of fencing off the “wilderness” in order to establish natural law.

Horton Hears a Who (Yellow Box).  A classic tale of humanity that moves the reader beyond his/her own world (nationality, culture) and into the perspective of another.  Excellent discussion can be generated by connecting this with current events such as the Tsunami in Japan.

The Sneetches and The Lorax (Orange Box).  The civilization box is one I continue to explore.  To me, an understanding of what it means to be civilized includes the control of our power.  Whether the racism in Sneetches or the environmental havok in Lorax, there’s plenty of opportunity to debate what it means to be “civilized.”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Red Box).  I’ve already written a post on this one 😉

Yertle the Turtle (Blue Box).  Among the shortest of any of these tales, it quickly gets across the point of a bad king.  To explore the possibilities of a good king, this can be paired with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. The King in the latter is a bit more complex in that he offers many opportunities to stay BC’s execution; however, the threat of his sovereign power remains.

Oh!  The Places You’ll Go! (Purple Box)  A common gift for graduates, this story relates well the power of an individual as well as the pitfalls possible without self-discipline.  There’s a strong federalist message here, with one’s personal constitution as GPS, hot-air balloon, row boat, or mountain-mover.

Additional Resources and Sample Activity:


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak; Hatchet; My Side of the Mountain; The Black Stallion; Duke Theseus’ soliloquy on imagination from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 7-22; Emily Dickinson’s “I Hide Myself within My Flower” and “Will There Really Be a Morning?”; Carl Sandburg’s “Young Sea” and “Summer Stars”; Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”; Vachel Lindsay’s “The Rockets That Reached Saturn”; William Carlos Williams’ “Heel & Toe to the End”; Frost’s “On Looking up by Chance at the Constellations”; Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter”; David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Peter             Schilling “Major Tom,” Handel’s “Scipio”; Selections from Cicero’s “The Dream of Scipio”; The Mayflower Compact

Activity: Draw an inverted triangle narrowing your location from broadest/ most general to narrowest/ most specific  (Ex. Universe…1234 Schoolhouse Road); create a mandala circle with your personal relationships in proportion to you (circle center); use Google Earth


The Stranger by Chris Van Allesburg; Sadako by Coerr and Young; The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth; Star Wars trilogies; Jacques’ reflective soliloquy on life from As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, Lines 139-166); Portia’s soliloquy on mercy from The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 182-195; Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “A Time to Talk”; Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!  Who Are You?”; Carl Sandburg’s “Phizzog”; BandAid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and a kajillion other 80s songs with human themes; Selections from Aristotle’s Politics

Activity: Contest to list most human emotions/ use “stick figures” to illustrate; what “new” emotion is created when anger gets crossed with sadness?; explore one emotion you have not yet felt (access compassion); connect with Needs of Humankind” “No (hu)man is an island.”


King Henry’s stirring soliloquy from Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3, lines, 40-67; MacBeth‘s soliloquy in which he has murdered to become King, Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 19-28; Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Dream Variations,” “I, Too,” “Words Like Freedom,” and “Mother to Son”; Carl Sandburg’s “A Sphinx,”             “Skyscraper,” and “We Must Be Polite”; Rudyard Kipling’s “Prelude to Departmental Ditties,” “If,” “Thorkild’s Song,” “Natural Theology,” and “The Ballad of East and West”; Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”; ee cummings’ “Portrait VIII”; Poe’s             “Eldorado,” William Carlos Williams” “The Fool’s Song” and “The Problem”; reference Star Wars trilogies; excerpts from A Christmas Carol or other Dickens; Aesop’s Fables: “The Frog and the Ox,” “The Mice in Council,” “The Wind and the Sun,” “The Trees and the Axe,” “The Lion and the Other Beasts,” “The  Fox and the Stork,” “The Fox and the Crow, “The Wolf and the Goat,”  “The Boys and the Frogs,” “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,” “The Monkey and the Dolphin,” “The Travellers and the Bear,” “The Kite, the Hawk, and the Pigeons,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and “The Gnat and the Lion”;  mythology; Arrow to the Sun by McDermott; just about anything by Robert Browning; selections from the works of George Orwell, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Mead; video games such as Sims or 1602; “Manifest Destiny”; WtP (middle school) selection: Tragedy of Antigone; WtP (elementary): Two Years Before the Mast; What happens to social acceptance when other cultures are enmeshed?  What is the role of the layers below: Humanity? Natural rights?  What if the orange box grows?  What if it shrinks?

Activity:  Trace  the history of an invention to the notion of “standing on the shoulders of giants”, explore resources and the ways in which these are harvested and the human resources behind them; contrast locally-grown with industrial product.


Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”; Langston Hughes’ “My People”; Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”; selections from Sherman Alexie; selections from Will Rogers; Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”; Civil War as “house divided”; Who has been disenfranchised from our people?;  What does it mean to be Vietnamese, Iraqi, British, Japanese?  Who are these peoples?; Who are Native Americans? The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Goble; Revisit Mayflower Compact; Declaration of Independence; When did we become a people?/ How are we still becoming a people?; connect with Needs of Humankind; Shays’ Rebellion; Can a people coexist without a shared view of civilization?  Humanity?  Natural rights?; Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges; Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On?”; Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”; Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”; Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” (maturity dependent); Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”; Spinal Tap’s “America”; Arlen & Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow”; Williams’ “Rainbow Connection” (I like the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ version.); National Anthem; Bernstein & Sondheim’s “America” (West Side Story); music as very powerful connection to red box stuff

Activity: Find a song that represents “the people”; bring a copy of the song and printed lyrics; be prepared to explain your interpretation


Selections from “The Masque of the Red Death”; Articles of Confederation; selections from Notes on the Debates of the Federal Convention; Kipling’s “The King’s Job”; Milne’s “The King’s Breakfast”; Shelley’s “Ozymandias”; Andersen and Zwerger’s             The Nightingale; Tennyson’s “On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria”; selections from various British musical acts, maturity dependent (The Who, The Beatles, The Housemartins, The Clash, etc.)

Activity: Invent a card game using the royalty cards to show what you’ve learned about monarchy.


Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson; Langston Hughes’ “Youth”; Claude McKay’s “America”; Henry Van Dyke’s “America for Me”; U.S. Constitution; Emily Dickinson’s “Revolution is the Pod”; Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”/ Springsteen’s live version

Activity: Write a constitution of self; “mail it” to yourself one-year from today (delivered by teacher); how have you amended yourself/ how have you remained?

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 3 of 3)

In the previous installment, I overcame my apprehension at introducing the politicolors, and began to share student responses to political theory.  At one time, I had been worried about the abstract nature of such an approach, yet here they were truly excited to use colored pencils in their notes and making connections of which I couldn’t have dreamed.

I usually turn up the heat on critical thinking skills once students hit sixth grade, but here the fourth and fifth were sweeping off my socks.  I also found that they were a bit more realist than I had been at that age.  This was saying something, in that our police resource officer always comments on our kids’ intelligence, yet inevitably adds that they are oh-so sheltered.

Maybe it had been our cool conversations on the state of nature, but the students saw plenty of disparity between the real world and American ideals.  Whether it be a news story or their own experiences in Detroit, the kids knew that the world wasn’t completely shiny and happy.  Delving further, we explored why they thought that was; if anything, what prevented the notion of Utopia?  Could government make people be better?

Somewhere in here, I suggested that the boxes might move.  Very quickly, A., my sole sixth-grader, realized that if the blue box grew outward, it would effect the red.  “The government would control the people,” he said.  “It would be a dictatorship.”  I offered up several bows.

Fifth-grader J. referenced an earlier conversation on perfection, born out of the wording of the Preamble.  J.’s attentive and he recalled the Aryans, commenting that pushing for a utopia can lead in the opposite direction.

C’mon, I told them.  Our blue box wants right.  We’re America.  (It didn’t come off so sarcastic.)  Couldn’t our government be trusted to mandate good behavior?  Debate ensued with no clear consensus.

Conversely, could the red box push as well?  Would it if the blue box began to grow too big for its britches?  What happened if the red box pushed back so totally that it obliterated the blue?  Didn’t Aristotle also warn of democracy run amok, of mob rule?  What was the consequence of no government?

The model proved itself remarkably effective.

In the end, the students understood quite well when I added the purple box.  The notion of limits had arrived, just before the tug of war ended with a crash.

The boxes also helped in another way.  One of the trickiest concepts to impart to the kids had been the differences between a constitution and a constitutional government.  Once they could contrast a purpleless system with a checked one, they easily got it: all governments had a make-up, but not all of them had a healthy one.  This allowed for a connected conversation to propaganda, including places on our maps with “Republic” in their name yet not in their nature.

Our unit’s culminating activity brought out another surprise: Legos!  Using a photo of James Madison’s temple at Montpelier,  we first discussed the importance of order and balance in architecture.  From week one, the kids had been tickled that the structure doubled as a refrigerator.  Now, we went beyond that still-important function to other aspects of the temple’s order, then on to its elegant balance.  Since we’ve been studying the middle ages in history, the students noted parallels with the great cathedrals as well as St. Anne’s , a  cruciform church we’d visited downtown.


We connected the temple with We the People‘s lesson on the contributions of the Romans to republican government.  Using the computer, we accessed photographs of Washington, DC, then discussed the great buildings as well as the city plan.

Finally, I dumped thousands of building blocks into the center of the room and offered only this direction: build a structure that is balanced and ordered and be prepared to explain how it is each.  Again, I’ve got to exclaim the merits of teaching middle school students.  Yeah, I’m spoiled by small class size (too small with the Michigan economy!), but middle years kids have a ton of energy and they are not so socially focused that they’ve lost their excitement for learning.  The colored pencils elicited ooos and ahhs, but the Legos–in more ways than one–raised the roof.

house1 windmill1 robot bike-factory yellow-pyramid factory

What impressed me is that many kids didn’t sacrifice creativity in the process of fulfilling the parameters.  Some of the creations had elaborate stories which added to their order, such as G.’s–a factory that ran on pizza grease while it created hats.  This activity goes beyond its initial success; it’s an investment in future We the People lessons.  We’ll come back to the ideas of balance and order, and the kids will feel invested as I relate ideas to their structures.

As I said in the beginning, for me, this material has to unfold as a story.  So, I’ll share with you that I’ve already got the climax of our tale.

For, after all of the students had gone, I created my own structure.  It’s a pyramid of Legos: one with the politicolors stepping upward.  Ready to emerge upon the given day–timed smartly with Unit 6, I hope–the seventh color.  From the structure’s center, with each of my student’s names inside.  Hokey?  Hell, I’m glad I can get away with it.  I’m incredibly lucky to teach kids that are yet open enough that this moment can affect them.  I’ll keep you posted as to my progress…

politipieces politipyramid lego-boxes

(I don’t believe there are purple Legos…  Is that because Denmark’s a constitutional monarchy?  ; )

The politicolors are another investment.  We’ll continue to reference them as we delve into the American Revolution, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Philadelphia Convention; the boxes are that powerful a model.  And, although I’m too restrained to declare them a resounding success, I’m damn giddy to see so much of my own excitement reflected in my students’ eyes and all-new thoughts hatching from their minds.

I’ve been fortunate to have dozens of my students return to our school’s annual picnic and remind me how much our little school has shaped them, how they hit the ground running.  I’ve felt vindicated for teaching toward the older students, offering what Will aptly terms a “surplus of knowledge”.  Now, though, I know that given the right structure, even fourth-graders can be mighty theorists; and these kids, they’re capable of flying.

As opposed to last year’s tact, the key lies far from the text.  In fact, the key is the key itself.  That is, creating a classroom open enough for plot twists to be interpreted, for new lines to be added to the script.

What I hope I’ve done is create a much more federalist classroom.  Whether through the construct of the National Academy or the concrete pillars of Madison’s temple, I’ve allowed myself to leave more space.  It’s not about locks on knowledge and thought; for, even elementary students can supply the mind to support (and lift!) the ceiling, if we allow them the will.

This year, that’s what I’ve so far learned.  To get there, I just had to get over the fear of trusting myself even more.

Thanks for sitting by the fire,


My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 2 of 3)

When last we met, I was explaining my dread, as I contemplated using Will’s boxes with my 4th-6th classroom.  Here was this rich, layered theory, which I still hadn’t mastered; yet, the politicolors had given dimension to the founding, I’d never before imagined.  Could I bring them to life?

It was understood that I had a looooong way to even near Will’s grasp.  After all, I’d still look back at photos of the concept maps and ponder the meanings of words written in the corners of the boxes or lines that could sometimes be dotted, and I’d wish for a National Academy 2.0.  However, I easily recalled Will’s self-effacing persona: one that was not just a style, but his genuine self.  He was always open with our crew, explaining that he was still discovering new meaning here, that our questions were important to the illumination.  And that was a comfort to me: that I didn’t need to know everything to open the pack of multi-colored Expos that would paint our white board.

A few lessons into the We the People curriculum, I had introduced the philosophers: Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison.  Knowing they were a well-educated assembly of Framers, the students understood that the Constitution had not appeared out of thin air.  It helped that I teach across curricula: Cicero could be connected to math and the laws of physics, and Aristotle’s biology background could be easily referenced with our studies of classification.  I guess my grasp of Cicero is a bit weak, because the kids latched on to the “body politic” notion far more tightly than the music of the spheres.  Perhaps it was because we had been using the microscope that week, for they related well to the idea of citizens as cells and their functions as differentiation.  The students ran with one of the last Aristotelian nuggets I offered up: “One who is not in the polity, must be a beast or a god.”

One student alluded to the notion that no man is an island; while several realized that one would have to be almost extra-terrestrial to not need others, if not a “deranged, crazy guy”.

This provided a perfect segue to my next lessons on Thomas Hobbes.  For me, Hobbes had been the most difficult philosopher to access, yet ultimately the most rewarding.  For my Nat’cademy project, I’d even chosen one of his pages for my writing assignment.  I wanted so dearly for the students to know him for more than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Indeed, they would have to, for Hobbes was represented by the red box.  The kids needed to understand the idea of what it meant to be a people.

As providence runs, we were heading into the last week of school before the holiday break.  Here was my chance to access Hobbes just as I had.  For in the July sun of Loyola Marymount, my unveiling of the red box: sprung from Will’s lectures, then rose with the provocation of  preceptor break-out sessions, only to finally land firmly in the sagacious realm of… Dr.Seuss.

Improbably, in the dead of summer, I found myself in Marina Del Rey purchasing a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


That night was to be another unveiling, Rowling’s last Harry Potter book, and Barnes & Noble was abuzz.  The sales clerk looked a bit sidelong at me as I slid the book across the counter.  I expected to hear some smart Alec response along the lines of really early gift shopping?!

But instead, she proceeded to tell me how her favorite tale hands-down was Horton Hears a Who.  (Another text with great connections to the boxes, I’ve just realized.)  I smiled and insisted I needed this one.  I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that they didn’t have a copy of it at the University’s library.

Fast forward a year and half, and across the country, to Michigan.  Well, once I’d finished reading the story to my students, they were out of their seats trying to identify the philosophy in it.  They saw Aristotle’s beast, with Whoville as a polity.  They explored the Whos as a people.  They connected the Grinch to Hobbes, as he was never really out of the community.  And, in a moment of sublime, one student linked the outsider to the homeless we’d seen in Detroit on a recent trip to St. Anne’s.

There have been many memories so far this year.  One can never prioritize them, but there is a fourth grade girl that’s just amazing me.  I’ll call her S. here.  The thing about S. is that she’s totally into this stuff, so much so that she goes home and writes poems about it.  And she’s got a great theoretical mind.  One of the most powerful examples to date came when we studied the early philosophers and their notions that there could be many successful ways in which to rule effectively.  I’m mostly referring to Arsitotle’s idea of the Good King, Aristocracy, or Democracy.  After contrasting each with its negative, S. just kind of blurted out, “Why not mix them?”

Yeah.  That’s what I’m talking about.

My other favorite S. moment to date came when she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think James Madison would think of this, if he were here?”

I smiled, then added, “I think he is.”

As the class cracked up, she inquired, “What, his ghost is here, like, sitting next to me or something?”

Waiting for the giggles to subside, I explained, “Not his ghost, his spirit.”

It was the perfect plant for my already envisioned denouement.  On the last day of Civics, I intend to conclude with the end of James Madison’s life.  It is said that upon his deathbed, Madison’s last words indicated that his passing was “nothing more than a change of mind.”

TOMORROW: Conclusions and Questions   notes-2

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 1 of 3)

After a year to digest Will’s colors and boxes, I felt ready to use them with my class.

It wasn’t without apprehension.  Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and re-envisioning the National Academy (primarily through writing and this site), I want to approach mastery before revealing ideas.  I think that’s only natural with one’s classroom.  All good teachers admit their limitations, yet we don’t like to be wrong a whole lot, and that’s when working with facts.  Here I was, deciding to dive into theory.  And it looked like a glass of water down on the sidewalk from five-stories high.

The first decision I made was to re-prioritize.  I teach in a Montessori school, and, for those unfamiliar, text books aren’t the standard operating procedure.  I use one for science and another for my 7th/8th Algebra I students; and that’s it.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the middle school We the People curriculum when offered a sample at the 2007 National Academy, and had gone on to use my class set in 07-08.

The mistake I made, though, was to teach from the text.  As a result, what had been always been riveting knowledge for me, and nothing short of revelatory in LA, was too stiff and rigid for my 4th-8th graders.  On top of that, even when I used a science book, it was ancillary.  Here, my passion for Civics was being suppressed by the need to cover every square inch of the print.  There was none of the feeling I’d experienced at the National Academy.  I mean, we moved, but there were way too many stumbles.

This year, I returned to my style and my strength.  I’m a storyteller, so that’s what We the People would be: a story.  No longer did I feel this self-imposed pressure to follow the curriculum verbatim and wait until Unit 3 to mention the Constitution.  In fact, I began with the Constitution.  After all, a plot needs its protagonist, right?

My second overarching concern was the boxes themselves.  For a long time in LA, as I worked to connect them to various philosophers and the readings, the meanings of each had confused me.  And here I was, considering imparting them to an even younger group than the year prior!  However, I did remember the moment in which the boxes had finally made sense; it was when Will suggested that they could move.

Armed with my point of access, as well as the open-mindedness my students had always shown, I took the leap.

It was after covering the philosophers that I pulled out a rainbow of dry erase markers.  Sure, the kids had seen them before.  I’m something of an artist, and Montessori encourages an attractive classroom; so I frequently embellish lectures and even corners of the white board.  But here, something was different.  The teacher was explaining that the colors would hold meaning.  A noticeable discomfort rippled through the group, and an inner giddiness began to flutter.  It’s not that I’m sadistic; rather, some of the greatest lessons arise from a wee bit of revolution.  The moment seemed pregnant with such possibility.  When I asked them to pull out their own colored pencils and match them with the corresponding markers, the hook was set.  Over the next several days, I watched my students rise and breech the waters of complacency to flutter through the otherworld sensation of air.

They were flying, and I couldn’t believe it.  Suddenly, theory wasn’t a cup below; we were together at sea-level, and some of the kids were actually taking leaps to defy gravity.

NEXT THURSDAY: Further Adventures with Long-Dead Philosophers.  Or Are They..?

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.