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May 02, 2011 ABA Journal Podcast

Big Sky Country to the Heartland: Teachers Get Kids to Care About Civics Despite Political Taboos

By Stephanie Francis Ward

You can probably name all nine U.S. Supreme Court justices. But most people can’t even name one. How can we change this for the younger generation?

ABA Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward spoke with educators and experts about why civics ed matters in a constitutional democracy and how some young folks are already putting their lessons into action.

For more on this subject, check out the Journal’s May cover package, “Flunking Civics: Why America’s Kids Know So Little.”

Listen to the Podcast

Podcast Transcript:

This ABA Journal Podcast is brought to you by WestlawNext, building on the strengths of Westlaw to bring you the next evolution of legal research. Their most significant innovation in 30 years, it’s a complete research system that gives you confidence you’ve found the most relevant information. And, it elevates productivity with intuitive work flow tools. Learn more at

ABA Journal: Ask your child what he learned in school and you might be met with a blank stare or “I forgot.” Particularly with topics many kids often find boring, like civics. However, we found some educators who teach tweens and teens about civics with real life projects. Projects that students themselves choose as a group and bring to fruition, often with very successful results. I’m Stephanie Frances Ward and some of those teachers agreed to speak with us for today’s ABA Journal Podcast. Sally Broughton has traveled the world. However, many of her social studies students at Monforton School, a small rural school near Bozeman, Mont., have never left the county.

Sally Broughton: In the town there’s only an elevator in a hospital so unless you’ve been in the hospital, you’ve never been on a elevator, you’ve never been on a escalator, the kids have never been on a train or a plane.

ABA Journal: Broughton and her husband, who both grew up in Illinois moved to the area known as Big Sky country after her husband retired from the military. She started teaching at Monforton and some of her sixth grade kids asked if she’d take them to Europe, once they received grades. Probably unlike many adults posed with the same question, she didn’t automatically say no.

Sally Broughton: And I said, well let me go think about that for a while, and I went home and I thought you know, they need to see their own country first and they need to understand their government and this will be a super opportunity. So I said, “When you’re in 8th grade, if your parents wanna help us raise the money, I’ll take you to Washington, D.C.”

ABA Journal: Some of Broughton’s students come from farm and ranch families or have parents who are service workers in Bozeman’s tourist industry. She also has students whose parents are doctors and lawyers and moved to the area to enjoy the beauty and the recreation it has to offer. The students, the school and the parents fundraised for all of the trip costs so all of the eighth graders can attend. This year they had to raise $40,000. Getting the money is difficult especially in this economy but absolutely worth it.

Sally Broughton: And one of the most exciting things, about the third year I took the kids, I had a little ranch girl and she looked at me after and she said, “I didn’t know that women could do things like I saw when I was in D.C.” And of course we saw a lot of professional women, we were in the senator’s offices and other places and she said, “I never had an idea that we could do things like that.” So it was pretty neat.

ABA Journal: The trip is a finale of sorts for the school’s 8th grade students, kids who have spent three years studying Civics and U.S. Government with Broughton and are just about ready to attend high school in town. In those last three years, Broughton teaches with hands on projects the student’s choose themselves.

Sally Broughton: By now the kids know that when they come to my classroom that that year they will do in 6th and 7th grade, in both years they’ll do an active project concerning public policy and something that will make the community better. And so when they come, we start putting up ideas of things that we find that bother us in the community or we think could be better, and by the time we have a list, about 10 or 20, then we start to decide which ones can be done with public policy and which ones can’t and which ones—whether they need new policy, whether it’s just a lack of enforcement and the kids get so involved, they start to research and they really buy into it and because they buy into it, it’s their project and they take it and run with it. And I just help facilitate what they’re doing and give them the skills and the knowledge that they need to make this happen.

ABA Journal: Over the years her students’ projects have included getting a safety path built near the school and convincing local government to have public restrooms in the downtown area. The students also took interest in a local jail.

Sally Broughton: And then that all started because one of my little girls said, “My daddy is in jail and we can’t go visit him because the only place where attorneys or families can meet with the prisoners is in this library of the jail and with attorneys in there, the families can’t visit.” And we got to talking to some police officers and then we talked to the judges and they locked the whole jail down and let me bring the kids in and the officers showed them how dangerous it was, how unsupervised it was and then they prepared a proposal that a new jail should be built and where it should be built, because that was one of the big issues in the community.

And Judge Silvani took our project to all. Well they testified in front of the Crime and Justice Board and then they took our project to all the community meetings and the kids said when they were testifying and they testified several times, “If something’s not done, somebody’s gonna die.” And unfortunately the next year, voters turned it down and somebody did die. But they now are dedicating the jail, I think it’s the end of April and they built it exactly where the kids suggested, exactly the way they said they should do it and so we’re all invited to spend a night in jail if we want to! I don’t know if I’ll do that or not!

ABA Journal: At first, Broughton says, local government didn’t know what to make of her student projects.

Sally Broughton: With the first year we testified in front—that was the one we did in front of the county commissioners and I don’t know that they knew what to think; but the kids, those little 6th graders—there were television cameras there and news people and radio—and they just marched right up there and testified and when they finished, the head of the county commissioners said to the audience (which was full of contractors and all kinds of people that were there asking things) and said, “If you folks got as organized as these young people were, you’d get your thing passed the first time too when you come to us.”

Which we took as a real nice comment, because they were very organized and they knew what they were asking for and they had all the research, they had all the ins and outs and the advantages and disadvantages figured out.

ABA Journal: The hardest part of her job is getting the children to reach a consensus about their projects. But Broughton says the process is also the best part of her job. And as far as learning, projects seem to work quite well—so well that Broughton’s students often take what they’ve learned and share it with others.

Sally Broughton: One of the most exciting things: About four years ago the principal came into my room and she said, “They’re doing it, they’re doing it,” and I thought, “Oh no.” You know middle schoolers, what are they doing? And she said, “The parents want some potholes fixed on one of the roads because the bus driver refused to go down there anymore because it was too dangerous for the bus, that the potholes are big enough to get lost in.” And they took the projects’ method that I had been teaching the kids and used that method to appear before the county commissioners themselves and asked for the road to be repaired.

ABA Journal: Your students did that but without your help?

Sally Broughton: With no help. No one’s help whatsoever. They knew what the kids were doing, they knew the process that the children had gone through, and they just took that process of preparing and what we do is we very clearly state the problem. We come up with some alternative solutions and find the advantages and disadvantages of each of the solutions, and then they come with the policy that they want, they feel is the best solution to the problem. And the parents followed the very same method and did the very same thing, which I was really tickled about.

I thought that was great, that the kids are teaching their parents how to be active citizens, how not to just sit around and complain but to help them become actively involved in the community.

ABA Journal: Pat Wilson teaches Government and History at Bloomington High School North in Bloomington, Ind. Like Broughton, she also teaches by doing. And besides showing her students how they can bring about change for themselves, Wilson’s lesson often give students reasons to want change for others.

Pat Wilson: I try to create classes that are student-centered, issue-centered and where evidence becomes the authority.

ABA Journal: A few years ago, Wilson’s students looked into the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Pat Wilson: Then of course obviously, the 14th and 15th Amendments are going to come up. They were looking and going, “In 1965 we had to pass a voting rights act that clearly if you look at these amendments&mdash” and they said, “Well, clearly we could look at them but clearly it was a vision that was not carried out.” And so that led us to investigating racism at the local level. But what was absolutely stunning to all of us in the class is that there was no written record of this dark side of our history.

ABA Journal: That led to the Banneker History Project, which started with Wilson’s students interviewing individuals who attended Banneker School, the segregated school for Bloomington’s black residents.

Pat Wilson: Our students were trained by anthropologists about doing interviews and they actually interviewed the local residents. And we were, you know, as the NAACP had hoped, we were able to reclaim the history of the Banneker School and the history of, you know, that part of racism in Bloomington, Ind., and now we have both a permanent museum piece set-up at the Banneker Center and we also have a traveling museum display.

ABA Journal: According to Wilson, students’ work with the project showed many of them that it takes more than legislation to bring change.

Pat Wilson: What it did is, it caused them to look much more critically at social interaction to see what was actually going on. And their conclusion was we have a long way to go to eliminate racism. You can legislate some behaviors, but you can’t legislative an attitude.

ABA Journal: And Wilson’s students saw that more needs to be done.

Pat Wilson: We have a lot of people in their eighties, they said take a look at the world today in Bloomington, and you’ll still see you have a lot of work to do. And so those words spoken by people who had physically and emotionally and socially been marginalized caused my students to really take a much more serious look at the world around them. It wasn’t about who you’re going out with on a Friday night, it was a much deeper look at, if we are part of this community, what are we doing to make it a better place?

ABA Journal: Marna Tucker, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, co-chairs the American Bar Association Commission on Civics Education in the Nation’s Schools. She says that when she was in school, officials tried to hide many things from students.

Marna Tucker: Well, I was in high school in the 50s in Texas and that was a time of real political foment. The various books concerning civics and American history were blacked out in certain areas of where the school board didn’t want the students to learn about it.

ABA Journal: But Tucker says she learned anyway.

Marna Tucker: So I took civics in high school, but I knew and had a civics teacher who was telling me what was really going on with this blacking-out of education. So when I went to the University of Texas, I majored in Government and Education and as my last year, I taught civics in the Austin Public School System. So I taught it in a way that I hoped it should be taught. So I came to my interest in Civics, having been denied a full and complete exposure to what was going on in the world, but because I had a wonderful civics teacher, she got my interest for good.

ABA Journal: And according to Tucker, some states still try to hide information from students, or present information to them in a biased manner.

Marna Tucker: The political times right now in many places, in many states, there’s a lot of pressure on teachers to not talk about the government or to talk about the government in negative terms. And that kind of pressure makes it even more important for our students to understand what government truly is, and what it can do for them. So, this is a period of time much like when I grew up in high school, where the books were—certain sections were banned from reading.

There’s a certain period of time where in some states, that’s happening now and it’s up to the teachers (like the one who inspired me) to tell students what’s going on, entertain a dialogue, let them understand it and chose for themselves after being fully informed.

ABA Journal: Tucker co-chairs the commission with Paulette Brown, a New Jersey labor and employment lawyer. Both women say that teachers like Broughton and Wilson are unique and they also say that teachers should have the freedom to teach civics in a way that they see fit. According to Brown, many teachers she’s met through the commission are very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Paulette Brown: I think that, you know, from the experience that I’ve had, and the enthusiasm that has come from the community with regard to civics education—not just the schools but a lot of different community groups are very interested in it. Marna and I have participated in a couple of civics education law academies since the commission has started. And not just teachers, but communities and the students themselves, are just so excited about learning more about civics education and especially as it pertains to their rights and how the laws affect them.

So I think the teachers would be more enthused and more inclined if they were given more opportunities to teach civics education.

This ABA Journal Podcast was brought to you by WestlawNext, building on the strengths of Westlaw to bring you the next evolution of legal research. Their most significant innovation in 30 years, it’s a complete research system that gives you confidence you’ve found the most relevant information. And, it elevates productivity with intuitive workflow tools. Learn more at

Last updated June 1 to add the podcast transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Sally Broughton teaches social studies at Monforton School in Bozeman, Mont. In 2010, she was awarded the National Education Association Foundation Award for teaching excellence.

Paulette Brown is a labor and employment partner with Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge. The Madison, N.J., lawyer is also the firm’s chief diversity officer, and a past president of the National Bar Association. Currently, Brown co-chairs the American Bar Association’s Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools.

Marna S. Tucker is a name partner with Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell in Washington, D.C., where she practices family law. The first woman president of the District of Columbia Bar and the National Conference of Bar Presidents, Tucker currently co-chairs the ABA’s Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools.

Pat Wilson teaches social studies at Bloomington High School North, in Bloomington, Ind. In 2007 she received the National Outstanding Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award, from the National Council for the Social Studies.