Tag Archives: Close Up Foundation

Capitol Hill Close Up

At 8:30 am on Wednesday, supporters of Obamacare were already out in force, anticipating the day's arguments in the Supreme Court.

Hill Day.  One of the fundamental reasons Close Up exists is for this epic moment, this controlled collision between students and legislatures.  As it so often goes, this week’s Hill Day was one of the most vindicating experiences for program instructors.  It didn’t hurt that there was an historical case being heard at the Supreme Court, nor that the committee hearings were relatively light for a day so near Congress’s recess.

Senator Al Franken speaks to Close Up Minnesotans outside his office.

I was assigned three meetings on the Senate side of Capitol Hill to attend.  In this phase we program instructors are very much in the background, just facilitating the meetings, providing directions or suggestions, answering logistical questions, helping lost school groups find their way, and occasionally suggesting that a student with a question that cannot be answered take a business card to follow up.  Minnesotans met with Senator Al Franken (D) outside his office following his constituents breakfast.  He then took questions and explained on which committees he served, what Hill responsibilities he had, the national issues he is plugging or fighting, the state issues that he is supporting in Washington, the constituent groups with whom he meets, and bills or amendments his staff is drafting.  Each school got a few moments with him, including one of the schools from my hotel who got hung up in the security lines and arrived late.

Michiganders met with Senator Carl Levin outside the Armed Services Committee, which he chairs.

The next meeting I had was with Michigan Senator Carl Levin (D).  He met with students in person outside the committee room he for which he is chair in the Russell office building.  He, too, discussed the state issues for which he is advocating in Washington–Asian carp in the Great Lakes, for example, is a big concern for both Michigan and Minnesota.  Senator Levin further elaborated on some of the issues related to energy and oil speculation that he has been working on.  He came from the Senate floor to meet with students and rushed off (late) to get to a meeting he was suppose to be leading after his opening remarks and answering a handful of the students’ questions.  His staffer continued the meeting, even handing out his business card to a student who asked a question he could not answer (I did not hear the question, sadly, otherwise I would brag about it).

Alaskan students met with both of their senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski and freshman Senator Mark Begich, on the Senate-side eastern steps of the capitol.

While it was a little breezy and bit loud and busy on the steps, the small contingent of Alaskan students nonetheless had a pretty intimate meeting with both of their senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) and Senator Mark Begich (D).  While they waited for them to arrive, a nearby press conference was held by the Democratic leadership regarding the Supreme Court case being argued in the background.  Once the senators arrived the questions began.  It was a slow start, but questions about oil and energy, transportation costs, and the health care law soon followed.  The two senators spoke to students for about 20 minutes, if not longer, and urged students to be ambassadors for the state and its issues that are relevant to the national stage.

Here is the most important take-away:

Each of the senators took the students seriously as constituents; they did not talk down to the students; they did not trivialize their presence with softball, time-sucking questions about the tourist sites in town that they might have visited; they did not expect to lecture, but anticipated good policy questions and answered them without talking down or patronizing them; they fielded questions about the state issues that were relevant on the national stage that they were working on for the benefit of their state and constituents.

Students have been encouraged all week to take agency, to increase their knowledge and to ask questions.  Beyond that, they have been given the opportunity to express themselves, to take the lead, and to influence their peers and decision-makers–especially those working on Capitol Hill.  They have walked the halls of power in America’s democracy and owned them–as is every citizen’s right–sitting in on committee meetings, hearings, Senate and Congressional floor debates, and Supreme Court arguments and asking questions of those who represent them.  If they can do this, surely, the halls of power and authority at home are small potatoes: student councils, school boards, city councils, state governments, etc.  While each school was photographed with their senator, it is to be hoped that it is merely a reminder of their agency and not a mere picture of a brief encounter during their high school days.

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War memorials and mock congress Close Up

The Lincoln Memorial heading up the end of the National Mall with America's war memorials.

Tuesday was a busy day!  We started out the morning with an exploration of Capitol Hill (so students would know their way around for Hill Day).  We took a group picture in front of the Capitol before workshops 1-6 headed to a seminar with a speaker from AIPAC–the strongest Israel lobby in the U.S.  (He shared the importance of Israel as an ally, but did not mention the P-word, until a student asked point-blank about Israel’s relations with Palestine.)

A group of students meets to discuss the presentations made by the war memorials. The World War II Memorial is in the distance at the end of the empty reflecting pool.

Then, after lunch, we hit up the War memorials to discuss the theory of just war and the representation of American wars on the Mall.  Students debated the timing of our entry into World War II and reviewed just war theory in the cases of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  (At the Vietnam, one student got a rubbing of his family member’s name who died in that conflict.)

Students explore the iconic and controversial Vietnam War Memorial. Students explore with questions about the artwork and the concepts of just war in their heads.

Then we returned to the hotel for dinner and a student-run mock Congress in further preparation for their Hill Day. Students took on the roles of chairpersons, lobbyists and reps in the House. While the group on the whole is rather conservative, there was a lot of good debate on current issues and bills under consideration, today.

Students are grouped in their mock committee meetings discussing the issues, pros and cons of bills that relevant in today's congressional debates.

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Big government, small government, and citizen action Close Up


Talking about small government at the Jefferson Memorial

Beautiful day in Washington, DC, today!  A little blustery–most of the cherry blossoms have blown off and collected in petal clusters along the paths–but the sun kept us all warm and the climate was otherwise quite accommodating.  A great day to use historical examples to talk about civics and government!


FDR Memorial: big government, big memorial... also, a long presidency

I had an awesome day with my students.  Our workshop has students from Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota.  24 strong and mostly self-identifying as conservatives or “depends-on-the-issue” with a few genuine “I-don’t-knows.”  I’ve had to play a little liberal devil’s advocate to represent the “other side.”


Different backgrounds, different states, evaluating the "depressing facts" of the Great Depression and the government's responses.

We hit the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials, today.  We discussed the merits and demerits of small and big government.  Then we discussed the role of the citizen–naturally, not restricted to government of one size or another.  Particularly, we discussed the methods of King in response to injustices entrenched in government policy, comparing and contrasting those with others, such as Malcolm X.


Entering the MLK Memorial and his quotes, evaluating citizen-responses to government injustice.

After we hit these memorials, our bus had lunch at the National History Museum.  Students had time to eat and explore before checking out the Hall of Evolution and how the concept is portrayed by public institutions–in other words, should it acknowledge debates–while drawing some parallels with public museums and public education.


Close Up participants get to be students and tourists while on program.

We finished up our Smithsonian visit and headed up to the Carnegie Institute for a seminar with Politico’s Senior White House Writer, who talked with students about media, driven by their questions.  Subjects covered the viral news stories, finding reliable reporting, following politics in today’s media world versus the pre-internet world, his belief in investigative journalism which he feels is on the decline, and the merits of major news outlets that are clear about the side of the aisle they stand on.  A useful seminar to follow the earlier issues raised in active citizenship as information is key to citizen response.

My workshop had another engagement covering federalism and the criteria students have for whether national or state governments should be in charge of specific responsibilities.  Then I was off for the evening, but  I am looking forward to hearing about the domestic issues debate between DC insiders Barry Piatt (liberal) and Ken Insley (conservative), debating the issues the students introduced, tomorrow morning!

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This week: Blogging from Close Up


I’ll be in the nation’s capital this week, during a 2nd week of contract teaching with the Close Up Foundation.

Close Up is devoted to helping students realize that they don’t meed to wait for some future nebulous date to be politically active.  Being active citizens–learning about issues, debating policies, influencing decision-makers–is not something they have to anticipate, it is something they can do now.

It offers in an intense “field-trip” all the best of experiential learning and (mini-scaled) project-based learning.  It is one of the most worthwhile high school experiences that exists.

So, this week, I will be sharing stories about students from around the county out of my favorite classroom in the world: Washington D.C.!

Note: any reference to students will be done anonymously.

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Railroaded by the librarian — teaching in collaboration (or not)

Teaching in collaboration is a wonderful tool, but it is often challenging!  I have had the pleasure in my sports history class to invite experts to come in and speak to my class: Dr. Stephanie Molholt guest lectured on the native American origins of lacrosse and John Gartrell, MA, lectured on sports in the Jim Crow era.  They both brought expertise with them that enhanced the class lectures and provided greater experience than I could.  In each instance, I asked them to place some emphasis on sources for their material because the students are going to be doing their own research projects in the upcoming months.  Otherwise, I placed few restrictions on them, not wanting to interfere with their natural teaching and lecture styles.  Any exercises they introduced were of their own design and device.

This differs from my approach with the librarian, when we went to a fairly routine library-provided “course” on using the library facilities for research.  When I scheduled the meeting,  I was told I could introduce an exercise into the proceedings–since this would be taking up a class period, this was something I was particularly interested in doing to preserve the course topics.

What I am going to do, from here, is describe how my day went and then talk about ideas in classroom collaboration a bit further, including my own growing pains, the advantages and disadvantages.

Leading up to the class, I had some difficulty in getting in contact with my assigned librarian.  When I chatted with him two days before the class was scheduled, he was leaving campus and we talked as he walked to the car.  He had made no other attempt to contact me before that point, but that afternoon said we could talk before the class on Thursday.  (In retrospect, respecting his need to get to an appointment I probably should have requested his e-mail and sent him exactly what I hoped to achieve, but I did not so we left it until the day-of.)  On Thursday, he was working on another project and it was a little difficult to get a word in edgewise when we finally met and actually spent a fairly limited amount of time in our collaborative preparation.

What I wanted to do that day was cover the library resources, databases and smart online searches to compile first the basic facts about Jesse Owens and his participation in the 1936 Olympics–which was the topic for the day, but focusing on Owens, in particular, would be more useful for their own projects.  The second half would be to use primary sources available online to make some interpretations and take it a step beyond just establishing facts.  The final product was to create a Jesse Owens profile at MyFakeWall.com.  In other words, I wanted the students to have an exercise that would allow them to actually practice using the resources.  None of this happened.  The students did not get on to the computers at all.  They did not do anything!  My librarian took over.

After opening introductions, my librarian opened up by challenging the students to clarify their understanding of the upcoming project to the extent that they understood it up to this point (I have not handed out the official assignment, yet, but we have talked about it–some of them may have even read the syllabus), and after fielding some answers explained that this was a multi-disciplinary project (which is largely true).  Then he launched into a discourse on themes he found particularly important from the general subject of the course.  I did not mind at first, because he had some legitimate points to make, but he carried on the subject for almost the first half of the class.  Also, I think he was a bit off-putting when he singled out students by race and asked them how they thought they might have been treated in Alabama a few decades ago (where he had previously worked).

Finally, we started to move in the direction of library sciences, but quickly were bogged down in plagiarism.  This is a very important subject and he made some very useful points but a half hour’s worth quickly becomes more proselytizing and less instruction.  We did, however, cover some useful points regarding sources, both primary and secondary, and how perspectives of an event change over time, even from direct witnesses.  Using the projector, he also covered some useful tools and rules of thumb in quality versus quantity internet searches.  For example, he explained how to use and Advanced Search on Google and direct it towards .edu sites for more reliable content, but also explained that the responses are based not on quality of the site, or even on closest match, rather simply on popularity of the site, i.e. number of hits.

With a short time left in class, we finally actually looked at what the CCBC library databases afford, including the newspaper database and educational sites run by Gale and Ebseco to which the school subscribes.  What we did not cover particularly well were the book sources available in the library–most of which are merely reference books, but many of which provide quick reference material of facts, such as DOB, individual’s educational institutions, careers, etc., plus provided stimulus for students trying to find a topic for their final project.  (I went back after the class and took pictures with my Android of the library entrance with directions to the relevant shelves and then photos of the actual books and series so they could see the various resources that were immediately available.)

I was trying to squeeze in information about the other area libraries that they could use and would have access to when I was abruptly informed by my librarian that we were done.  (Me: (mid-sentence)– Librarian: “We’re done.”  Me: “Yes, we’re at the end–” Librarian: “No.  We’re done.”  And, then he pretty much turned and walked out of the classroom.)  I managed to get in that the students had access to anything available in our neighboring institution, UMBC–a five minute drive from our campus.  But, was cut off while explaining that the best Maryland resources are in Baltimore’s public library, the Enoch Pratt, and that Johns Hopkins University’s collection is open to the public, even as he interjected with affirmations regarding this information–all information of which I had learned from him before class.

In the end, the class got the Jesse Owens assignment as homework and a bunch of handouts.  I sent some follow-up e-mails, but they are going to be hard-pressed to complete the assignment, although the attempt should expose them to some useful resources.  Still, it would have been much more fruitful if we had worked together.

When I worked for the Close Up Foundation, most of our teaching was done collaboratively, both with our colleagues and our students–it was a huge driving force behind our methodology.  Collaborative learning is a particular approach that is very active.  It implies active learning, lots of doing, lots of thinking about how you are learning as you go.  Collaborative teaching combines the knowledge and experience of different people with widely varying backgrounds in both education and profession.  It implies preparation and planning towards a commonly understood goal.  Neither or these forms of educational collaboration were achieved that day in the Y building on CCBC’s Catonsville campus.

In general, I am wildly excited about collaboration in the teaching arts.  Whether this is simply teaming up and using each other for brainstorming and exchanging ideas or in more involved co-teaching assignments, especially introducing multi-disciplinarian approaches to history or humanities, I think opportunities exist to transform instruction into an interactive and successful experience for students, that explodes with innovation.  Now, this is obviously idealistic as people actually often have control or ego issues (problems I have encountered in other people and which other people encountered in me–especially in my initial attempts at this sort of thing), or other clashes along ideological or pedagogical lines and, of course, personalities.  Still, if both parties are committed to the students and willing to compromise than most differences and clashes can be overcome.

The longer I worked in the heavily collaborative climate at Close Up, the more I realized I had to adapt.  I was annoying, headstrong, resistant to some forms of help or input, bossy and struggled at the basic courtesy that accompanied collaboration.  (For example, I had to train myself to write ideas or questions that popped into my head down on a piece of paper in front of me and wait to see if they were really all that germane to the conversation before blurting it out.  This also helped me focus on listening more instead of waiting to speak.)  Part of my faults were rooted both in my genuine passion and excitement for the subject matter and for the pedagogy, but the other half was equal parts arrogance/ego and insecurity–neither of which really have any place in collaborative work.

I also think collaborative work is an important part of teaching and modeling for students–they are going to have to do it at some point in their lives and they need to learn to balance both what they can contribute with what they can get out of each other.  As educators, we so often hear the following with collaborative projects: 1) he didn’t do anything; 2) he took over everything; and 3) I didn’t understand.  Excuses are common from students, but no more consistently in group work, especially if they have to work together outside the classroom.  Refining this skill is so important that many schools (especially colleges) require professors to include them in the curriculum.  But, it is hard to get students to all put the same effort into the pot–maybe its unreasonable, even unnecessary for the “same effort”, still it requires something resembling an equitable division of labor, if not input specifically.

Even teaching a sports history class getting everyone on the same page is a challenge–and, these students fully understand the concept of team, though maybe not as it applies to intellectual endeavors.  I have tried various means to create templates and systems to at the very least encourage true collaboration and not tyranny or slacking.  For example, I have tried to establish group contracts that clarify the division of labor from the outset of the project, but nothing has been as successful as I hoped.

Additionally, we as historians come from a collaborative field and as much as we want our students to learn the methodology and approach within the field, we want them to learn about the functionality of the field.  This includes everything from conferences to peer-review and symposium to colloquium.  Students should engage in that activity!  In doing so, they refine their speaking, writing, reading and researching skills.

Obviously, I should have been more proactive from the beginning when planning this class, maybe even raised the possibility earlier in the process that I was not paired up with the right person for my goals.  I should have e-mailed a week out and started the ball rolling myself instead of waiting for him.  All of which is very clear and easy to identify, now, but that doesn’t help my students.  We’ll talk on Tuesday about where they are on the assignment that is due Thursday.  I will provide directions if they have had little success so far on their own and hopefully the tools they have been exposed to are now more familiar and stacked helpfully in their toolboxes in preparation for the final project.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning