Government in Our Lives: First Day of Class Idea for US Politics

As the semester starts up, its always a good idea to generate ideas on how to start the first day of class.  My preference is always to start off with something on-topic that can generate discussion, rather than opening with introductions or syllabus review.  I have a lot of non-majors in my class, many of whom think politics is boring, and my goal is to show them from the first class that politics has an impact on their lives and thus is worth paying attention to.  The challenge is finding something to do that does not require any actual knowledge of politics–picking a current event, for example, may cause students who do not follow the news to tune out completely.

My solution, which has worked fairly well, is to ask them to name one way in which government has had an impact on their lives that day (I usually teach at night; you could easily make it that week).  At first, they often struggle to come up with anything. Then a few answers start coming in: someone works in a government job, or has a family member in the military.  Next, taxes tend to pop up–income taxes, sales taxes, etc, and educational systems, including student loans.  Soon they are talking about roads and driving regulations (speed limits and cameras, licenses, registration, insurance), regulations (particularly on medications and food), minimum wage, the post office.  I usually have to remind them about clean air, drinking water, sewage systems, marriage laws, money, international trade, and feeling secure from foreign invasion.

As each new idea is offered, I ask if it applies to anyone else, and usually I see a sea of hands.  By the end I charge them to find one thing on their person or in their lives that day that has NOT in some way been influenced by the government–and its a struggle.  I invite them to look in their bags or wallets to find something, but so far they’ve yet to come up with anything.

The nice thing about this opener is that it does not require any outside knowledge of the students.  Everyone can participate whether they are a political junkie or a skeptic, and I usually see very high levels of participation particularly after the first couple of contributions and students realize the scope of government involvement in their lives.  But by the end, its hard to refute that government and politics affects their lives, thus providing a rationale for engagement in the course.

How do you start off your course? I’d love to hear some other ideas.

4 thoughts on “Government in Our Lives: First Day of Class Idea for US Politics

  1. Graham Goldsworthy would give them a 50 short questionnaire on social/political/historical issues, which most couldn’t even answer 2 or 3 questions….using the stick rather than the carrot to make them feel…oh dear I’d better take this course.

    My intro way is to have them right on the back of an index card their academic history, their reason for coming to this particular university, to take this particular course, and to say any two things they know about the course topic.

    This then leads into a very productive getting to know each other and share their limited knowledge of the topic they’re to engage in. Usually as a class they lay out the parameters of what I have in mind!

  2. I’m glad I stumbled upon this blog!

    I use the following question as an “icebreaker” and then write the responses on the board for use later in the class: “What IS ‘government’?”

    I contrast common stereotypes of government as some alien, external entity with the following sentence (paraphrased) I heard former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) say while being interviewed: “Government is what we call it when we do things together.” Since I teach at a state university, it is pretty easy to then launch into tangible examples of government using the classroom as exhibit “A”.

    I also use this quote from Pericles: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

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