I recently discovered a neat little site called I Civics, a “web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.” Founded by former SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the site features curriculum and online games aimed at different lessons in American civics. The lesson plans are clearly designed according to active learning principles. For example, the ‘Separation of Powers’ lesson includes a role playing exercise where students create a school lunch menu by acting as each branch of government in turn. The lesson includes an optional PowerPoint presentation, student worksheets, a group activity, and several online games, plus a teacher’s guide for the instructor. Everything you need for a successful class!
Of course there is a drawback: the use of colored pencils, cutesy graphics, crossword puzzles and simple language clearly mark the material for a younger demographic. The worksheets are particularly juvenile, but then, occasionally, so too is American politics. I wouldn’t let this turn you off: the ideas and activities themselves with a bit of adaptation could easily work in the college classroom. For example, one activity asks students to analyze a Supreme Court decision in the light of civil liberties, in a lesson on the 1st Amendment. You could ask your students to do that and ignore the worksheet that goes with the exercise.
I particularly like the lesson on balancing the budget. Not for the materials, but the exercises—having students act as Representatives and Senators and negotiating between several appropriations bills and resolutions—and for the idea of how to cover the budget process as a single lesson, which I confess I have found difficult to fit into my curriculum—though I do keep trying. In fact, this may be the best feature of this site: it provides some neat ideas on how to edit down the immense material we can cover into smaller, easily digested bites.
Actually, that’s not true. The best feature is all the cool games and simulations on American politics. I’ve played through a few of them and they are hit and miss in terms of their potential to be made age-appropriate, but even the ones that can’t directly be used have helped generate some ideas on how to tackle this material better in the classroom. In the coming weeks I’ll be giving you my feedback on these games and how they could be modified for our courses.