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Social Studies Teacher Includes Various Points of View in Different Historical Periods

by Jane Caiff

Bringing Democracy to a Presidential Campaign Debate


In many schools during a presidential election year, students only hear about candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties.  In reality, there are other political parties, but they are excluded from debates even though they are qualified to run candidates.  Many adult voters are surprised at all the choices on Election Day, but are unable to consider a third party candidate since they have heard nothing in the mass media about them and where they stand on key issues.


Branden Rippey is a social studies and sociology teacher in a Newark, New Jersey high school, and during the 2004 presidential campaign, he decided to have all political parties represented before the student body through a student debate:  Republican, Democrat, Green, Socialist Workers, Libertarian and Constitution.


He describes the process here:


“It took my sociology class about 2 weeks of researching, making campaign posters and then actually prepping for the debate.  It would have taken longer if it were just my class, but the Student Council had a real ambitious, politically conscious president that year, so she spearheaded many aspects of the project including encouraging students to volunteer to be a candidate and handling a lot of the logistical arrangements.


“My class chose students to run for each of the political parties, and then they researched the candidates.  Debaters had to have a whole sheet of outlined notes; precisely how they did it depended on each one’s preference.  I had them watch interviews with a couple of the candidates although that is something I want to have them do more of next time.


“No student was left out of the process.  All were attached to one of the candidates even though they might not be the one doing the debating, and with my guidance, they all helped research and make posters to hang up around the school.” 


When the day of the debate arrived, and at the beginning of the program, Mr. Rippey explained the event to the audience:


“Basically, I just made clear at the outset how important it was, how it would give them a better understanding of the candidates. I pointed out that in the next few days, they and the teachers would vote at ballot boxes placed in the school, so to know what they were voting for, they had to pay attention.


“There was occasionally some talking or silliness, and I had to ask for quiet once or twice, but generally it was fine.  (It helps to divide up the class grades so that you don’t have the entire school in the audience at once, and so you don’t have consecutive grades sitting next to one another.  For example, if you have 7th, 9th and 11th graders in one assembly and 8th, 10th and 12th in another, they don’t know each other well, and so they’re less likely to talk and socialize rather than pay attention to the debate.)


“Each candidate made an opening statement.  After that, I could have had students in the audience ask questions, but I decided to ask them myself with an eye towards highlighting contrasts and differences on key issues – money in politics, health care, war in Iraq, and the economy.  Needless to say, they all had equal time to speak; if a candidate was forgetting something, I just gently fed him a fact or two to help him out; I corrected inconsistencies, mistruths etc. as real journalists should do, and I asked tough questions which focused on the candidates’ beliefs and how they would carry out programs they proposed.  Overall they did well.


“I forget how many voted, since it wasn’t mandatory, but the Student Council kids did all the counting and tallying; however, my sociology class could have done it if we had to.  The teachers and students voted separately so we could compare the two results. The Green Party got a significant number among students, but the Democrat won in both groups.


“We have a great principal who let us put posters all over, let us use the gym for the debate, and let us disrupt an entire morning of school.  It was a big production!


“My class did not always enjoy the preparation for this debate because I was pushing them to go deeper into specific policies when they just wanted to pick out a few big slogans and call it a day.  I kept them working by relying on my passion for this project and force of personality.”


 Bringing in a Critical View of the Vietnam War


“When covering the Vietnam War, after students have done the readings in the text and a couple of background activities in preparation, I always do a 2 – 3-day lecture with lots of outside information and a more critical interpretation of what happened there.  (By the way, with my students at least, and when done in moderation, lectures do work, can keep kids’ attention, are great ways to revise more general mythologies, and to introduce points of view left out of textbooks.)


“A colleague and I show the documentary “Sir, No Sir” about the anti-war movement WITHIN the US military in Vietnam.  I give the students 5 questions which I call a video quiz.  The kids love it because it’s like a scavenger hunt through a film, and those 5 answers are then graded as a quiz. What is most important is that it forces kids to watch and listen carefully over the course of the 3 days it takes to complete the film.


“It’s a fabulous documentary because it shows refusal to follow orders, and flat out rebellion or near rebellion against unjust, illegal, and immoral orders and acts.  It really shows that instead of just saying, ‘Well, what can I do?’, people really can take collective action to cause change.  The documentary does a good job of showing that because of all the protests and insubordination within the military, the US had to scale back and even end the involvement there.


“So we talk about all that, and then we talk about why they never heard of or saw this documentary in theaters.  And of course it is because the powers-that-be know that if people saw what they are really capable of, we might do it again, or on an even bigger scale.”


A Graphic Way to Understand Social Problems


To help his students think more critically about tough issues faced by our society and why they exist, Mr. Rippey has students draw a “Problem Tree”: 


“In the final days of my Sociology class, after we have spent the previous 2 months dealing with major social problems in the US (1 per week +/-), I have groups of students create a “Problem Tree”.  Students draw an actual tree, and then label parts of it with different social problems. 


“The trunk has the major, or most pressing of all the social problems; the branches are the other broad social problems (most of which are those we have studied, and which are all in some way the effects of the ones listed on the trunk); the leaves are smaller, more specific social problems, and some are falling from the tree down to the ground as leaves do.  Finally, in the ground are the roots of the tree.  There, students identify the root causes of the major issues labled on the trunk. 


“The point about having the leaves fall to the ground is to show that they go back into the earth and then, symbolically, contribute more to the roots of the problems.   Therefore, it’s like a cycle, and kids can see how symptoms can contribute more to the strengthening/deepening of the roots.


"This graphic really helps kids to pull together all the situations we have looked at and to analyze how they are all interconnected - which are more properly root causes and which are symptoms, etc.  In many cases, the environment, inequality, or poverty have been identified by my students as the major, most pressing problems, with capitalism, greed, and corporations as the root causes."


Mr. Ripley’s Educational Philosophy


“I teach to change the world.  Many of our world’s biggest problems could be dealt with in constructive, rational ways if people first understood the problems and the history behind them, and then had some real options presented to them.  Unfortunately, there are few noticeable politicians who propose good solutions to these problems, and we have learned that we can’t count on our corporate controlled media to propose or even cover politicians who have sensible solutions.  So, as a teacher, it is my responsibility to make sure I expose students to things that they are otherwise not exposed to.  That means I cover the voices of the working class, the dissent that the media doesn’t show, the underlying and root causes that never get discussed.


“I don’t have some magic bullet to gain respect from my students.  I just try to model respect by listening and thoughtfulness, and over time they get on board.  My kids, for the most part, enjoy my classes and become, if slowly, more politically and socially conscious and curious.”          


“We need informed, critical thinking citizens if we are to do better, and maybe, with our environmental crisis, literally save our world.  I want my students to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”


Note:  Quotes in this article came from email correspondence.

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