One of my many failures as a teacher of U.S. history (or shall we say “areas for development“) is around civics. My curriculum is filled with opportunities for teaching civics, but I rarely track student mastery of these concepts and am regularly frustrated when it becomes necessary to understand complicated constitutional issues – most recently it was around the commerce clause, separation of powers, and judicial review in studying Schechter v. United States and the New Deal (the “chicken case”).
In an attempt to remedy this situation, students now take short “Constitution Quizzes” weekly based on readings from The Words We Live By. Early on student reaction was “mixed” at best – adjusting to accountability for material not specifically taught in class has been a big adjustment, but a necessary one as they prepare for high school and college. The first few readings focus entirely on Article I and the legislative branch. Student performance has improved, however I questioned whether or not their recall of facts from the readings would translate into more sophisticated analysis of historical evidence.
On Thursday I felt vindicated. Students did a “close read” of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Address to Congress Requesting War with Japan. As we turned to the document, I asked the question I ask before we read anything in history class – “as historians, what is the first thing we do we when encounter a document?” The answer is uniformly – “analyze the source”. I asked the class to annotate the source for information related to why FDR is giving this address and put 1 minute on the clock. As I walked around and observed I noticed more and more students circling “Congress” and annotating with “legislative branch” or “power to declare war”. When we brought it back together students explained in depth that Article I gives the legislative branch the power to declare war and Roosevelt needed their vote to respond to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Several students also explained that Congress is elected by the people so in presenting his position to Congress FDR was also making his case to the American people.
This sounds like a tiny victory and it is; but one that will continue to pay dividends throughout the remainder of the year. My class’s experience with Article I and FDR’s speech reminds me of the importance of prior knowledge to the Common Core, particularly CCRH 6-8.3 and CCRH 6-8.6. Students must understand the complex constitutional issues in order to treat FDR’s speech as the important historical document it is and not just a piece of rhetoric presenting an argument for declaring war on Japan.