Beyond Guest Speakers: This Inaugural Column about Democracy Education Explains How to Involve Politicians, Political Activists, and Candidates in Interactive Lessons to Maximize Student Engagement and Learning

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS TEACHING high school social studies I frequently invited political office holders, candidates, and political activists to speak to my classes. Exposing students to people working directly in the political system, I reasoned, would not only help my students learn more about democracy but it would help them critically evaluate its successes and failures. I also hoped it would enhance their interest in political and civic engagement and make it more likely that they would actually do something politically themselves. So I worked hard to set up visits by local, state, and federal office holders, their staff members, and political activists, such as lobbyists for interest and reform groups. During election years, I also invited candidates to speak to my students. Before the visits, I always explained the course and described the students to the guest speaker. I also made sure students knew who was coming in to class, why and that they had an opportunity, (or were required) to generate questions. Often the guest speaker would give a short speech and then respond to students' questions. Sometimes the speech took up most of the period and the time for questions was cut short.

Given my own interest in the political world, I was invariably quite engaged by what the guest speakers had to say Some of my students were, too. But this was not always the case. I remember one student telling me that he didn't like listening to politicians any more than he liked listening to other adults. I also remember how embarrassed I was when a few students actually fell asleep when a member of Congress was speaking to them. While I had a gut sense that there was merit to bringing my students in contact with adults who were involved in the political system, I was concerned that there was something not quite right about how it was working in practice. Too few of my students were engaged by what the guest speakers were saying. More significantly, the class sessions with the guest speakers often lacked focus and depth. Because the students' questions were on so many topics, the guest speakers did not really have time to explain any one issue in detail. Another problem was that real dialogue between the students and the guests rarely occurred. I needed a new model for involving politicians and candidates in my classes--one that would serve the dual goals of exposing politicians to students (and vice versa) while utilizing the "best practices" of social studies education.

Fortunately, such a model exists. In the 1980s, a number of democratic education organizations assessed the effects of law-related education on students' learning, attitudes, and self-reports of their behavior. The research showed that having outside resource people (such as politicians, lawyers, and police officers) involved in interactive lessons positively influenced what students learned about the political and legal systems, helping them develop attitudes that were more likely to lead to political engagement. (1) In contrast to the traditional guest speaker model that represents a transmission approach to teaching and learning, the interactive nature of the lessons with the outside resource people requires students to do more of the intellectual work themselves. And by actually working with the kids rather than talking at them, the resource person uses his or her expertise and experience to help students build knowledge and solve real or simulated community problems. Because the students were doing more than simply listening, their engagement levels were typically higher, the session was more focused, and the content coverage, more in-depth.

An example of this model in action: A 9th grade government class is learning about the purposes and procedures of the city council by investigating a proposed ordinance on raising the minimum wage for workers in their community. The issue is authentic; that is, the city council is scheduled to make a decision about the proposed ordinance soon. …