Get Personal: Lessons from a US Government Teacher
By Chani Rotenberg
News coverage of the American government today can be quite disheartening. How can we develop thoughtful public policy within the intense polarization, legislative gridlock and lack of trust that infects our political system? And how can we teach the next generation of leaders that they can be agents of change within this system?
At Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, our US Government curriculum is built to develop civic literacy and to prepare students to become knowledgeable, thoughtful, open-minded and active citizens. Given the state of politics, particularly following the 2020 election, I wanted to develop a project-based unit that would give students the opportunity to research issues of interest and to tackle these problems, in a bipartisan manner. The unit had four goals for students: to research public policy issues from a variety of perspectives; to develop skills in constructive dialogue; to use the dialogue skills when discussing areas of disagreement, and to come to some area of consensus, even if small. And through this project, I hoped students would learn about members of Congress and the legislative process.
Feeling daunted but motivated, I reached out to the education team at Civic Spirit for guidance, brainstorming sessions, and resources. With their support, I developed The Congress Project for my two 12th-grade Government classes.
To begin, the students assumed the personas of current US senators, selected based on topic of interest. Students worked in groups that included members of the other party with the intention of developing policy solutions to these pressing civic issues. Topics included criminal justice, LGBTQ rights, racial inequality, college affordability and regulation of technology.
In order to prepare for their working groups, each student researched her senator’s background and values, creating identity maps to better understand the unique policy views. When meeting with “fellow senators,” the students used these maps, constructive listening practices, and dialogue questions to exchange information. Senators worked through disagreements (and there were certainly disagreements) to find some common ground on shared values. At the conclusion of The Congress Project, students presented proposals to the class and reflected on the process.
As with any new project, there were obstacles along the way. A few topics were too broad, and students struggled to narrow their focus. The research phase took longer than anticipated, and some senators had less of a social media presence, making them difficult to follow and study; I plan to revise the assignment next year to address these barriers and enhance the project.
More importantly, however, I also observed students listen constructively, debate respectfully, and work as a team. Getting personal and thinking about an issue from the perspective of a legislator—a real person!—seemed the best way for students to understand both the complexity of policy reform and the opportunity for bipartisanship.
One student’s reflection captured this process beautifully:
“It was incredibly difficult to research an area within our topic that our senators could somewhat agree on. However, after researching and throwing out a lot of suggestions, it felt very rewarding to come to a compromise. The part of the project I enjoyed the most was researching the individual values that are important to my senator. I think it is way too easy for people to say negative things about senators or other politicians because of how much they disagree with that politician, but this reminded me that the senators have the same values as we do. And, despite thinking of them as powerful leaders, they are just people as well. I think that realization was what made it easy for our senators to come to an agreement. When you set aside everything that senators disagree on, you find that they really do want the same things.”
My goal was to have students learn about the legislative process, and develop the skills necessary to become engaged citizens. While witnessing the students’ thoughtfulness and seriousness of their approach, I discovered a valuable lesson in democratic action: It’s personal.
Chani Rotenberg is the history department chair and co-director of humanities enrichment at Ma'ayanot Yeshiva in Teaneck, New Jersey. She is a member of Civic Spirit’s Educators Cohort 2.